Samira Musah, Ph.D.
Tell us about your current career position.
I am a Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. My postdoctoral research focuses on applying stem cell biology and genome engineering technologies to develop patient-specific organs-on-chips microphysiological systems that are predictive of human developmental processes, disease phenotypes, and therapeutic responses. This work could illuminate developmentally regulated events in pathophysiology, and provide a low-cost alternative to animal models for the development of preventative and therapeutic interventions for human disease.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
My graduate advisor strongly encouraged her students to go where their ideas and imaginations take them and not be limited by where their training left them. Following this principle and my passion for learning and solving problems, there have been many times during my graduate and postdoctoral work when I needed to learn entirely new fields to advance my research interests. For example, I started graduate studies with a chemistry background, and I soon realized that I needed to learn cell biology to pursue the research projects that excited me; and now as a postdoctoral fellow, I am learning from the fields of microchip engineering, human pathophysiology, and genome-engineering. While these experiences seemed challenging at first, I am excited by how they have defined my career trajectory.
How did you first become interested in science?
I had a great chemistry teacher in junior high school, but I did not seriously consider chemistry as an academic major until my first year in college when I enrolled in a chemistry course which was required for a computer science major. I immediately switched majors when I realized that chemistry was more exciting to me than computer science -- I was, and still am, fascinated by how chemistry guides biology. My interest in conducting research and pursuing advanced studies in chemistry and biomedical sciences steadily grew from my undergraduate research experiences through the McNair Scholars Program and the Summer Research Opportunities Program.
Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
Yes -- failure is inevitable in scientific research, and I experienced some of it in the form of disappointing experimental results or dealing with partial manuscript reviewers. But I learned a lot when things didn’t go as expected. For me, those challenging moments have often unleashed my creativity and shaped my approach to scientific inquiry.
What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
I encourage all future scientists and engineers, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, to work on problems that excite them, be proactive about pursuing new and unique experiences, and seek mentors who will inspire and challenge them to excel.
What are your hobbies?
A dear friend of mine introduced me to Bikram and vinyasa yoga about nine years ago, and I never stopped practicing. I also enjoy cooking, swimming, as well as traveling and exploring other cultures.
What was the last book you read?
Two of my last favorite reads are “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell, and “The Biology of Belief” by Bruce Lipton.
Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
My mom has always been my inspiration and motivation. Mom never had the opportunity to receive a formal education. In fact, her only taste of what school was like was watching her peers pass her on their way to school every morning. Still, she seized every opportunity to instill in me the value of education.All of my academic mentors have also been excellent role models to me – their innovative approaches and desire to contribute to science and medicine inspire me to work on problems that interest me.
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
I am fascinated by how chemistry and environmental factors such as mechanical forces can drive biology and how this knowledge could improve understanding of disease mechanisms and lead to therapeutic development for acquired and genetic forms of human disease.