Sabah Ul-Hasan, PhD

they/them/theirs

Where to find them:

  • On Twitter: @sabahzero
  • Instagram: @thebiotaproject
  • Github: @sabahzero

Education:

  1. Undergrad: B.S. in Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental & Sustainability Studies (University of Utah from Aug 2008 – May 2012)
  2. Graduate school: 
    1. Biochemistry M.Sc. with an emphasis in marine science (Aug 2012 – Aug 2014, University of New Hampshire)
    2. Quantitative & Systems Biology Ph.D. (Jan 2015 – Aug 2019, UC Merced)

Current job title: Postdoctoral Scholar and Applied Bioinformatics Lecturer at Scripps Research 

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

I first became interested in science from observing insects outside as a kid, but it wasn’t until a friend in high school persuaded me to apply to a summer research program with her that I thought I was capable of pursuing it as a career. 

In my mind, I think all science is some form of data that aids in answering curious questions, so I would say I’m more or less doing the same that I’ve always done, but I suppose technically I’ve jumped around quite a bit within the life sciences. 

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

Rosemary Gray, Ben Chan, and Pradip Bandyhopadhyay 

I didn’t know anyone in scientific research before meeting these individuals. Rosemary was the director for the high school summer research program, among managing several other programs at the University of Utah, and her motivational influence is what drove me to keep going in science. Hundreds of scientists exist today because of her. 

Ben was my very first research lab mentor in Colleen Farmer’s lab. I worked for him as a high school student when he was a graduate student, and we’ve been in touch ever since. He’s a constant source of support and guidance, and does great science. The same is true for Pradip, who was my second research mentor when I started working in the Baldomero Olivera’s lab. 

My initial exposure to working in a research lab was so incredibly positive because of these individuals, and those experiences are what kept me going when challenges (be them scientific or interpersonal) came up at later stages. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember we’re all people doing our best, and to treat each other with kindness. 

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I almost dropped out of science, twice. It’s an unfortunately common experience, and little of it had to do with the science itself being difficult. When you’re young, you’re very impressionable. The gravity of people’s actions and words can carry much more weight than maybe those people realize, especially when you don’t know anyone else who is a scientist besides the people you directly work with. I would say I’m a bit stubborn and so, even when I wanted to leave, I kept telling myself that pursuing science was something I wanted, and that I shouldn’t let anyone take that experience away from me or belittle me for it. It also helped a lot to have people such as Rosemary, Ben, and Pradip as constant pillars I could consult for advice in knowing I wouldn’t be judged for whatever decision I chose. I still consult them a decade later. Having a support network of any kind is the biggest factor in navigating doubts.  

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

I was recently laughing to myself at what my 17-year-old self would say if I were to tell them that all my research is done on a computer. At that age, I had this romanticized dream of being in the amazon and curing various infectious diseases for the sake of conservation and human health. I somewhat did that, but with more marine and venom focuses, during my PhD and it was incredibly fun and also very stressful. I’m extremely happy to be in position I’m in now where all my wet lab and field work is 100% optional, and maybe that will change again. Who knows! The bottom line of all this being that being open to change has been a critical component of my growth and success as a scientist. It’s completely okay, and even good, if things don’t go as initially planned. And it’s also completely expected that bumps, either within or outside of your control, will occur along the way. If I were to go back in time, I wouldn’t change any of it because otherwise I wouldn’t be who I am now — and I like who I am. 

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

Until pursuing my PhD, I almost always compartmentalized what I did that wasn’t strictly ‘scientific’ as an extracurricular. It really wore me out over time. As I started to dig more into science history, as one does when they’re spending a lot of time with their own thoughts in semi- existential crisis mode, I learned just how common it was for successful scientists of the past to incorporate their hobbies as direct parts of their research. Science is dynamic and requires a lot of creativity for identifying answers and solutions. I was so worried about being objective prior to my PhD that science ended up becoming this very ‘sterile’ thing to me, which is silly because science doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s totally messy and subjective — our efforts to decipher the mess through better clarification of the subjectivity is what helps get closer to being objective. Fortunately, my dissertation just became publicly available so feel free to peruse through all of Ch IV for examples of this, lucky to have worked with many great people as a result: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7rn287kn 

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Find the people who will let you be yourself. This is different from finding people who say “yes” to everything, you don’t want that. You’re in it to grow and evolve, and you’ll want that constructive feedback for self-improvement. But you also don’t want to find yourself in toxic environments on the fence of emotional abuse, which is unfortunately common in any dynamic where there are power structures (ie working in a lab with tiers from PIs to undergraduate students). 

The rest will come naturally. It sounds incredibly corny and cliche, but it’s very true. In my personal opinion, anyone who wants to do science is simply: A person who is curious and asks questions about things. That’s it. That’s the criteria. Find the right people to surround yourself with and you will blossom. On the flip side, find the wrong people and you can find yourself picking up some very nasty behaviors as well as feeling mentally drained beyond belief. If you gain energy from talking to someone, vs them taking up a lot of your energy, then that is a person to be around! 

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