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Doctoral student brings science to mass audiences

By Melva Robertson | Emory Report | May 8, 2019

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Neuroscience PhD student Anzar Abbas excels in both research and communicating science to general audiences, attributing his success to faculty who have mentored him throughout his academic journey.

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As doctoral candidate Anzar Abbas leads the procession of graduates into the Laney Graduate School’s 2019 diploma ceremony, the honor of student marshal represents a culmination of many personal, professional and academic discoveries throughout his life.

The “uninspired teen” turned neuroscientist credits his move to the United States as the pivotal moment in his journey to self-discovery.

“The move was a transition that opened my eyes to so many different opinions, experiences and people that have impacted, over time, who I am as a person,” says Abbas, who says that before then, he was “an uninspired teenager growing up in a not-so-nice part of Karachi during a not-so-great time in the history of Pakistan.”

Abbas earned his undergraduate degree in neuroscience from Michigan State University with a minor in theater. He attributes his interests and foundation as a researcher and neuroscientist to his undergraduate experience with mentors who helped shape his pursuit of graduate education.

“History of science was a primary focus of mine as an undergraduate: I began grappling with big questions that have always faced humankind,” Abbas explains. “Particularly, I was taken by the desire to understand the nature of human consciousness. My professors were instrumental in narrowing my focus. They were a large part of my decision to become a neuroscientist. It was from them I acquired my entire philosophy on what it means to be a scientist and an academic.”

Experiences such as an opportunity to study the history of medicine and neuroscience at the University of Oxford awakened Abbas’ intellectual curiosity and prepared him for the major undertaking of pursuing a PhD. In fall 2014, he enrolled in the neuroscience doctoral program at Emory, part of Laney Graduate School’s Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

His research focused on developing pattern-finding algorithms that studied brain activity captured through functional MRI. He notes great satisfaction in contributing to his field and the value that lies in lessons learned while pursuing the research. Throughout the journey, he grew to realize the importance of his total graduate experience.

“The culture of the Laney Graduate School is so far ahead of any other program that I’m familiar with because it genuinely demonstrates support and care for our development as scientists, academics and individuals,” says Abbas. “I was able to do my work in a way that best supported my professional development as an academic and a scientist.”

Bringing science to mass audiences

Abbas’ graduate achievements were numerous, and yet, his experiences were unique. In addition to the relationships developed with his peers and professors, he also developed avenues to explore and translate scientific research in different ways. One specialty was his ability to communicate research to a broad range of audiences through mass media.

Innovative research efforts  

Continuing to forge his path as a graduate student, Abbas was also the writer and on-camera host of a popular science show produced by PBS called “Physics in Motion.” The show has gained tremendous popularity. He also served as a contributor to several other educational productions for Georgia Public Broadcasting. His faculty supported the time and commitment required to write and host the shows, an act that Abbas feels is unique to Laney thanks to the leadership of the school’s dean, Lisa Tedesco.

“Laney’s ability to foster an environment where students can be creative in their intellectual development is largely due to the influence of Dean Tedesco,” says Abbas. “Laney is special in being open-minded enough to allow a student to be away from the lab to write scripts and host a TV show. The faculty and leadership of the program not only supported my decision in pursuing such opportunities, they encouraged me.” 

Abbas’ work with PBS was later considered part of his curriculum because it aligned with the school’s goals of supporting career-relevant professional endeavors.

“They knew that this activity would directly impact my professional and academic development, and strengthen me as a scientist; and they supported it,” he adds. 

“Anzar is an innovative researcher, able to demonstrate his contributions to science specifically through his passion and well-practiced ability to communicate complex scientific concepts to diverse audiences,” Tedesco says. “I am extremely proud of Anzar, and his peers, as they move into the next chapters of life and work, and exemplify the value and necessity of comprehensive graduate education.”

Lessons learned 

Abbas’ journey led him to a focus on bridging the gap between scientists and the public. He currently resides in New York City as a neuroscientist for a health care technology startup. There he works on developing artificial intelligence technology focused on solving problems in health care. 

Looking back on his educational journey, he most values the opportunities and knowledge gained from the influences of his professors.

“I’ve learned so many lessons: The need for humility; the understanding of not only asking good questions but also being able to answer them well,” he explains. ““A professor once taught me that not until you fail to disprove your hypothesis should you feel compelled to believe in it. That shaped me as a researcher. All that I am today is a reflection of professors who have taught me the value of intellectual pursuit and the difference between knowledge and wisdom; for that I am grateful.”