A bright future starts through Fulbright - Mohammed Shaaban (Egypt, 2018-20)

Mohammed Shaaban profile
Mohammed snapshotting the cellular proteins using state-of-the-art cryo-EM

Raised in the land of the Pharaohs, I used to have dreams as tall as the pyramids.

Raised in the land of the Pharaohs, I used to have dreams as tall as the pyramids. My Egyptian roots left imprints in my character, including a determination to achieve exceptional targets — similar to the pyramids — that stand for a long time and fascinate the entire world with their structure.

With that in mind, I chose science as my passion early in childhood. During the first years of my bachelor’s degree, I realized that science was the best way to build long-lasting structures in the age of the knowledge revolution. Having selected science as the focus for my bachelor’s degree — in which I received the highest honors — I was growing up confident in my choice of future profession. Hence, I joined Zewail City of Science and Technology, a fetal scientific edifice that, at that time, had been recently established by the Egyptian–American Nobel Laureate, Professor Ahmed Zewail. During this early stage in my journey, I was awarded some prizes, gained some life skills, and also did some research.

The turning point for me came when I decided to apply to the Fulbright program. I was among the top candidates awarded a two-year fully funded scholarship to pursue a Masters (M.S.) degree in Biochemistry and Cell Biology (BCB) at the State University of New York—Stony Brook University (SBU). Due to my interest in building miraculous structures via high-caliber science, I selected Structural Biology as my M.S. research specialization.

Building the man is much more important than manning the buildings

In the U.S., I was granted access to a completely different scientific environment and the opportunity to achieve my dream. I saw early signs of this new environment when I first met the academic director of the M.S. program, Professor Neta Dean, and saw how affable she is. At the welcome party, the entire Biochemistry and Cell Biology department members were — and always are — bursting with energy. Soon after, I joined the Chowdhury lab to start my research on solving the structures of cytoskeletal proteins. I discovered that a close relationship between mentor and mentee is one of the very special aspects of research in the U.S. I remember discussing our exciting research with my mentor very openly. Many times we would break from our experiments to have a cup of coffee or lunch/dinner together while discussing the future directions of our discoveries. One of Dr Chowdhury’s idiosyncrasies is that he often throws out an open question for brainstorming, with the aim of igniting your mind. The academic and administrative staff in the department played various roles in our life, ranging from supervisor and mentor to friend, supporter, and staunchest advocate. In this environment, building the man is much more important than manning the buildings; a focus that I had not experienced before. In addition, the Fulbright program staff provided every helping hand to support me during my research. Lastly, collaboration is one of the most successful traits developed by humanity and civilized people, such as my colleagues at SBU, make full use of it.

Indeed, being a member of such a family was my beautiful “luck”, a word not previously in my vocabulary. The same word was the first element in Professor Dean’s email — along with three other words: effort, intelligence, and creativity — in response to me asking, before joining the M.S. program, about the elements required for a successful M.S. degree and to publish a top-tier research paper. With all the support and mentorship described above, I was able to solve a fundamental question in Biology that had been puzzling researchers for over the past two decades — how does actin nucleation start, at the structural level? Actin nucleation is an important mechanism which occurs in response to various cellular signals, and ultimately leads to the formation of the actin cytoskeleton which is in turn important for essential biological processes such as cell migration, phagocytosis and organelle transport. Using cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM), we were able to obtain a near-atomic-resolution snapshot of the actin filaments at birth by solving the structure of the activated actin nucleator, the Arp2/3 complex, bound to its nucleated actin filament. On the basis of my work on this project, and only after a few months in the program, I was recognized in the yearly BCB departmental retreat and awarded the “Best Presentation”, competing with many senior Ph.D. students and post-doctoral fellows. More importantly, my work led to a first-author publication that has been published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology — a top-tier journal in the field.

I am hugely thankful for the mentors, professors, supporters, and collaborators who believed in me over the past few years. I am also grateful to the Fulbright program for funding my Master’s studies in the U.S.

The study

Shaaban, M., Chowdhury, S. & Nolen, B.J. Cryo-EM reveals the transition of Arp2/3 complex from inactive to nucleation-competent state. Nat Struct Mol Biol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41594-020-0481-x

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