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Crucial Asset in Innovation: Q&A with Arwa Abbas, PhD, New Diversity Fellow

Published on November 7, 2019 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 4 months 1 week ago


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Arwa Abbas, PhDDiversity fellow Arwa Abbas, PhD, wants to fill major gaps in our current knowledge of the human microbiome.

Three new postdoc scholars shared what inspires their research and what diversity means to them as recipients of the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity organized by the Office of Academic Training and Outreach Programs at the Research Institute. We’d like to introduce you to our final fellow: Arwa Abbas, PhD, a Pathology and Laboratory Medicine researcher working with her mentor, Joseph Zackular, PhD, a researcher and assistant professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Meet our other two new diversity fellows in part one and part two of this Cornerstone Q&A series.

Tell us about your background and what compelled you to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity.

My first memory of science involved watching “The Magic School Bus,” a children’s program that followed the misadventures of a class as they learned about the natural world. I was exposed to the philosophy of working together with a diverse group of individuals to apply what you learned to solve a problem. Similarly, my early education was in a diverse, supportive environment that allowed me to capitalize on my natural fascination with and aptitude for STEM topics. 

However, when I departed for college, I suppressed the defining elements of my identity as a practicing Muslim daughter of Pakistani immigrants in favor of assimilating into what I perceived as the dominant “American” culture. Noticing the lack of STEM faculty with backgrounds similar to mine, I erroneously believed that my cultural and religious beliefs would be criticized or misunderstood, especially by scientists. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by committed mentors to pursue my interest in microbiology in graduate school.

Subsequently, at the University of Pennsylvania, my thesis work investigated the viral component of the microbiome in the laboratories of Rick Bushman, PhD, and Ron Collman, MD. I became an active member and leader of the Ernest E. Just Biomedical Society, a student organization promoting the professional, personal, and academic development of underrepresented minorities in their graduate studies. This and other experiences in science outreach and education challenged me to think creatively and deeply about different populations’ unique needs. 

My goal in applying for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity was to further my scientific training as a postdoctoral fellow to prepare for my long-term goals as either an independent researcher or as a critical liaison between researchers and the public and contribute my experiences and expertise to the CHOP community.

What does diversity in research and science mean to you?

Scientific research is an iteration of asking questions and communicating your findings with a larger audience, including basic scientists, clinicians, patients and their advocates, who all offer valuable insights and feedback. I believe that diversity, though frequently untapped, is a crucial asset in scientific innovation. My graduate training taught me that inclusivity means actively acknowledging that individuals have different skills that can be leveraged to solve a problem. I have witnessed how collaborations within our group and with others have made great contributions in topics ranging from carefully characterizing the human microbiome to understanding divergent clinical outcomes in gene therapy to developing biochemical approaches to cure HIV. 

What inspired you to focus on Pathology and Laboratory Medicine? What do you aim to achieve with your research?

There are still major gaps in our current knowledge of the human microbiome that I wish to address in my post-doctoral training under the mentorship of Joseph Zackular, PhD, assistant professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn. The Zackular Lab’s pathogen of interest is Clostridioides difficile (C. difficile), which is the leading cause of hospital-acquired gastrointestinal infections and a major public health burden in the United States. 

It’s known that disruptions in the gut microbial ecosystem is required for C.difficile to colonize and cause infection. C.difficile infection can range from mild diarrhea to severe complications including death. My project focuses on how other members of the perturbed microbial community can impact this spectrum of disease by modulating C.difficile virulence factors, such as toxin production and biofilm formation, or by modulating host innate immune cells, such as macrophages. 

The goals of my project are to determine which microbial small molecules, enzymes, and genetic elements mediate these changes to C.difficile virulence. Overall, I believe this work will elucidate the mechanisms by which other bacteria can protect against or promote disease in the context of C.difficile infection and ultimately inform treatment options for patients.

When you’re not working, do you have a favorite pastime or spot to relax, enjoy a meal, or be active?

I often introduce myself as a full-time scientist and part-time art dilettante. When I’m not at the bench (and sometimes even then), I can usually be found doodling. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, my current career choice was influenced by an animated television series. Plus, I think fun illustrations and informative designs can profoundly impact a viewer’s understanding and excitement of the underlying scientific topic.