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Summer Breakthroughs in Science: An Educational Journey

Publishing research findings in peer-reviewed journals is an important part of being a scientist. That's why Imran Babar (pictured left), one of the 6 recipients of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's (HHMI) Gilliam Graduate Fellowship, was elated to be listed as a co-author of not one but two articles published in June of this year, both of them in top journals. What's really impressive about Babar's accomplishment is that he did the work for both papers--one on the role of a population of stem cells in lung cancer development (published in Cell) the other on gene expression in group A Streptococcus (published in PNAS)--as a participant in summer undergraduate research programs.

Babar's research experience helped him realize that he wanted a career doing cell and molecular biology research and motivated him to apply to some of the nation's top graduate schools. "I gained a lot of confidence," says Babar. "I saw that I can be successful in research at one of the best institutions in the country."

The graduate programs he applied to recognized his potential: Babar was accepted at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. He chose to attend Yale mainly because the doctoral program in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology offered the range of research that matched his interests well. After Babar received his B.A. in biology in 2004 from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, he took a year off before starting graduate school this fall.

Asking Questions

How do watches work? What are inside radios? As a kid growing up in the small, rural town of Willow River, Minnesota, Babar asked questions like these and searched hard for answers. "I never stopped asking questions." Babar, who is Pakistani and Native American, spent two summers during his high school years doing scientific research at the University of Minnesota's Center of American Indian and Minority Health (CAIMH), which provides education and training for Native Americans interested in health care professions. It was here that Babar developed his fascination for research, though he was also considering a career in medicine: after his two summers of research at CAIMH, he moved on to CAIMH's Native Americans Into Medicine Program during the summers before and after his first year in college. Despite being torn between research and clinical medicine, his overall experiences at CAIMH, he says, "whet my appetite for biological sciences."

Following his sophomore year, Babar participated in the Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Program (LSSURP) at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in St. Paul. This program trains talented undergraduates who are interested in research in the life sciences. Here, Babar assisted in the development of tools for diagnosing bovine enteroviruses.

Strong Influences

Babar's next two summer research experiences had an even greater impact than the ones that preceeded them: one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the other at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Rocky Mountain Laboratories Integrated Research Facility in Hamilton, Montana.

HHMI's Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) allows undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds to work with HHMI scientists from around the country, and Babar was nominated by faculty at Carleton College to enter the program in the summer of 2003. He chose to work at MIT, and his work with lung cancer development netted him his first co-authorship in the prestigious journal Cell.

Babar applied to graduate programs around the country, and received acceptance letters in early 2004. He chose Yale but deferred his enrollment into graduate school for 1 year to take advantage of other learning opportunities. After graduating from college, Babar did a 3 month summer internship at NIAID's Rocky Mountain Laboratories. The sponsoring program for the research, NIH's Intramural NIAID Research Opportunities (INRO) Program, supports underrepresented minority students interested in pursuing a research career in allergy, immunology, or infectious diseases. Babar joined the lab of James Musser and had two dedicated scientist mentors there, Steve Porcella and Kimmo Virtaneva. This work netted him another paper; this one in PNAS.

A Clear Road Ahead

Although Babar is leaning toward becoming a professor and running his own lab some day, he hasn't ruled out the other scientific employment sectors. Whatever sector he ends up in, he intends to be a mentor to students interested in science. "I've been on the receiving end of mentorship and I see its importance," he says. "I want to make a positive impact in people's lives." He especially wants to encourage minorities. "Underrepresentation [in science] shouldn't be a discouragement. It should be a motivating factor."

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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