Excellence in Action
Fasih Ahsan ’15
Interviewed by Monique Beals • November 14, 2019
Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.
I graduated from UCLA in 2015, and I got my degree in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics. My major involved a lot of research in immunology and the intersection of mitochondrial function and metabolism during cell development and activation. I really wanted to get involved in research, primarily basic research and understanding the fundamental mechanisms by which cells and tissues function. My interest in that started when I did some undergraduate research at UCLA in Dr. Sri Kosuri’s lab in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. I worked on a synthetic biology project with this group called UCLA iGEM where we manipulated and designed these novel bacteria to produce cool biomaterials like synthetic spider silk. From that early starting point, I got really interested in science and pursuing the idea of creating your own products and observing your own phenomena and being able to make really critical insights into biology that people really haven’t seen before. I was really excited by that.
From there, I decided I wanted to get rigorous training in science as a career. I was a Lab Manager and Staff Research Associate in Dr. Mike Teitell’s lab in the UCLA DGSOM Department of Pathology and Lab Medicine. My job there was overseeing maintenance of a large research lab that primarily worked at the intersection of body metabolism, cancer progression, and immunity. I was leveraging big data science and experimental work in order to make some cool insights. I got to work on overseeing and managing the lab, as well as doing research and using techniques from computer science and data visualization. From that initial training, I was really interested in further pursuing an independent career where not only would I help people in the laboratory come up with research questions and answers and manage the lab, but maybe potentially run my own lab someday.
As a result of my work as a technician at UCLA, I decided to apply for Ph.D. doctoral programs in biomedical sciences. As a result, and thanks to all the mentorship that I got at UCLA as an undergraduate and as a technician, I am currently doing my Ph.D. in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Harvard Medical School, where my interests are in the space of big data analysis, genomics, and how we can use those approaches to look at diseases. In particular, I’m interested in metabolic and mitochondrial diseases. That is where I am currently. I just started working here three months ago, so I am in Boston and am very excited for how things will work out.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
From an early age, my mom was a really big influence on my interest in becoming a scientist. My mother was a chemist back in Bangladesh (where my family is from). When she moved to the United States, she wasn’t able to translate over her credentials in being a research chemist. That has always been a big regret for her in her life that she wasn’t able to start her doctoral studies to get the credentials she would need to be able to teach or do research in chemistry in the US in some way. That has been a big motivator for me, and she has been a big influence in saying that I should follow my dreams and not allow those hindrances to happen in my life. She has really inspired me to forge the path for myself. The biggest motivator and what inspired me the most was being able to pick up where my family left off.
On top of that, I am fundamentally motivated just by being in a position where you can learn something really cool about biology, about how the cells in your body work, and about how you can cure diseases. Starting from a creative position and thinking about things that people haven’t thought about before and being at that cutting edge is just fascinating, so that really inspires me.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
UCLA’s research program, especially in Biochemistry, Biomedical Sciences, and the David Geffen School of Medicine, are extremely fantastic. The support given for mentorship from professors, the support that the laboratories have in conducting research, as well as the community where scientists can collaborate together was really fundamental in making sure I got this initial start as a scientist. That was incredible. I obviously don’t know what other universities are like, but I think UCLA has that unique intersection where you are in such a great metropolitan city like LA ,and you are in a really fantastic area where there is a lot of medicine and a lot of biomedical studies going on. There is enormous room for doing really cool biology. I think that was just a fantastic environment to learn from. In addition to that, the mentorship I received as an undergrad from professors in the Chemistry and Biochemistry department and in Pathology has been extremely instrumental for me. Overall, for a public university to have such an excellent research program and enormous flexibility and enormous training is really unprecedented, so that really shaped my success.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
The professor I worked with as a technician, Mike Teitell, was an undergraduate at UCLA and received his M.S., M.D. and Ph.D. from UCLA. He’s been a professor at UCLA for well over two decades now. As a great alumni resource, Mike definitely was really instrumental in shaping me and the way I think about science. I lot of what I’m doing now was inspired from his career trajectory. One of the things I will always remember is that he really loved UCLA and the training that he got at the undergraduate level and as a clinician and a scientist. It was so instrumental that he felt he had to give back to the community, so as such he stayed as a professor at UCLA. I think that inspires me to potentially follow that route. I would love to be able to give back to the places where my roots come from and where I have trained to be a scientist. If I can give back to that, that would be amazing.
In terms of the alumni network, I was able to interface with people at the alumni network who were setting up these career outreach programs with classes in the Life Sciences department. I was reached out by people in the alumni network, and I got to talk about what life was like in my job at the time as a lab manager in one of the UCLA Pathology labs, and what that daily technical work as a staff research associate was like to groups of graduating students. In that sense, coming back to campus and speaking with students gave me a feeling of mentorship as a result of the UCLA alumni network as well.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
When I transitioned into the lab that I worked in, one of the skill sets that I needed to master was really rigorous training in data science, big data visualization, machine learning and really looking at complex, large data sets and trying to find meaning and patterns from it. We had a lot of such datasets in the lab, and a lot of interests in utilizing these to answer fundamental, outstanding biological questions. I was tasked with bringing that skillset to the lab and figuring that out. It wasn’t something I was initially trained in. I was trained as a molecular biologist in classes and research, so that was daunting being in a position where I had to learn all that and provide it as a benefit to the lab.
One thing that I did that was fantastic was that I applied for a staff scholarship from the UCLA Staff Assembly. It is a really excellent group that provides incentives for staff members of the UCLA community to gain personal benefits that they can bring to the workplace. I received one of their scholarships, and I used it to take an Introduction to Data Science course over at UCLA Extension, and that was really fantastic to get formal rigorous training in data science. Even though it wasn’t directly related to biology, I learned a lot of really cool techniques that I then was able to apply to data sets and questions that were ongoing in the lab. I got to understand a lot more of the work that was going on and really understand a lot of the phenomena. A lot of that has been successfully published in a couple peer reviewed publications, so that has been a really fantastic way of overcoming an initial challenge of having no idea how that stuff works. Through mechanisms offered at UCLA, I was really able to pick that up.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in this field?
One of the biggest things that I would say is to always keep an optimistic attitude no matter what circumstances may be inhibiting you or blocking you from reaching the goals you want. I know undergrad can be a stressful time, especially if you are far from home or trying to juggle a lot of things, whether that is professional or personal in your life. It is just really important to have a positive and optimistic mindset, so that you can progress forward. From a mental health perspective, I think it is really important to have that engaging outlook. That would be my abstract advice.
In a tangible concept, because UCLA is such a fantastic community to collaborate with people about science (or any field), it is really important that you not only do your classes and do them well, but also talk to your professors outside of class, go to office hours, talk about their research, network, and go to seminars. There is a ton of seminars and presentations that are always going on on-campus. Interact with speakers and go to the luncheons and networking events. There are so many opportunities that exist at UCLA, and there are so many more than you could possibly fit in a day. Always be checking the events in the UCLA happenings section and be aware of what’s going on.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
I still speak with members of the old laboratory that I worked at. We still have this really nice dialogue about the science that is ongoing and the lab and how projects are going and progressing those projects to publications. I’m always happy to help whenever these discussions are happening. One of the big things for me now is that there is a large UCLA alumni community in Boston. In particular, there are at least five UCLA students that I can think of right now in my Ph.D. program. There is a lot of camaraderie and spirit that comes with that. Being able to talk about our time at UCLA and watching UCLA football games together is a really great way to engage now.
Before I left UCLA, I was still going to the basketball and football games and everything even after I graduated, so I really miss being able to do that now.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
I think one of the biggest things I got from my experience was that being a Bruin and a member of such a large group of people that think in such a diverse way is such a multicultural experience. I’m really proud of the fact that I got to be a part of that community and not only succeed academically, but also grow as a person. It really changed my mindset throughout undergrad and when I began working. The sheer amount of diversity that the campus has and the way that they celebrate it is what makes me really proud. People who are underrepresented or underprivileged are still pulled up by all the resources available from the university. That makes me really proud and inspired to continue that kind of work as well. I’m really interested in diversity and making sure that all communities have equal access not only to education but to science as well. Those are projects that are really being endorsed here at Harvard Medical School, but my interest in that primarily stems from what I saw as a Bruin.
And finally, what’s next?
I’m still getting an education right now, so that is a very open question. I’m getting my Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences, and my interest is in conducting academic research. I would like to make some really insightful findings in how different cell systems and organisms use metabolism to regulate their functions. That is something I’m very interested in and I would love to see that research go forward. When my Ph.D. program ends, my interests are in continuing to produce research as a post-doctoral fellow and maybe as an academic investigator working in my own lab. I additionally have an interest in continuing to look at issues of diversity and underprivileged student engagement, so I’m also interested in undergraduate teaching and teaching science to underprivileged communities. I’m also really interested in scientific policy and issues of biodiversity and green energy, and I would like to work in scientific literacy and advocacy. So science policy, undergraduate teaching for underrepresented minorities, and research are three things that are all options for me right now, and I’m just excited to see where my Ph.D. takes me. All of that is next, and I’m very excited for the future and to see where things go.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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