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National Mentoring Month: A Q&A with Ismail Syed

Friday, January 14, 2022
syed.pngFASEB’s DEAI Program Manager Debbie Bouyer interviewed Ismail Syed, MS, PhD (he/him/his), who is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and a reviewer for the FASEB Journal. 

During this interview, Syed shares his educational and professional journeys and the challenges faced by international students from historically excluded communities. His passion for science, perseverance, and a supportive network has been key factors for his success. Syed hopes that his experiences will inspire others to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, or math, particularly students from underrepresented communities. 

When Syed is not teaching, he enjoys traveling and learning about different cultures, gardening, and coin collection. 

Let’s start the conversation with learning about you. Can you share your background with our audience?  
Syed:
I am an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), Boston. I received my bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad, India; a master's degree in Pharmacology and Toxicology from Long Island University, New York; and a doctoral degree in Pharmacology from Wayne State University, Detroit. After graduating, I joined Barbara Kahn`s laboratory at the Division of Endocrinology at BIDMC and HMS as a postdoctoral research fellow. 
 
What (or who) was your inspiration to choose your career path? 
Syed:
Members of my family, including my mother, have a long history of diabetes. This early exposure to diabetes motivated me to gain a better understanding of the biology of the disease and ultimately pursue a career in diabetes research. I started my research career during my undergraduate studies in India and, later, I was fortunate enough to enhance my research skills and develop an undying passion for science under the mentorship of Siddhartha Ray, PhD (master`s mentor); Anjan Kowluru, PhD (doctoral mentor); and Barbara Kahn, MD (postdoctoral mentor). 
 
What challenges did you encounter throughout your educational and professional journeys?  How did you overcome them? 
Syed:
In India, until my bachelor’s degree, all I had to do was focus on my studies and my family took care of the rest. When I came to the United States for a master’s program, it was difficult to cope with the studies and the plethora of challenges due to cultural differences, language barrier, and managing expenses. This might be the case with most international students who come to the United States to achieve their dream. But for me, this was a temporary phase once I found a research mentor, Dr. Ray, who guided me to overcome it. Most international students are not lucky in this sense and are still facing difficulties. Another important factor that has helped me to deal with these challenges is reaching out for help when needed. The only way one can truly learn is by asking your teachers, colleagues, and friends for some extra guidance.
 
What challenges are still faced by scientists from underrepresented communities because of existing institutional barriers? 
Syed:
Students and scientists from underrepresented groups are still experiencing an unwelcoming climate that negates a supportive learning environment and the ability to develop a sense of belonging. One of the key challenges faced by students and scientists from underrepresented communities is the lack of a systematic approach to evaluate the target student population and assess student needs.  
 
What would you like to see change for the scientific community to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive? 
Syed:
I strongly believe that all teachers must strive to change and mend their teaching abilities, often due to the lack of a single valid teaching technique. I have learned this from my mentors, Drs. Kowluru and Ray, who are skilled at analyzing the needs of students and employing necessary strategies to motivate the students to achieve maximum learning. This is much needed due to the varying nature of students and their level of understanding from class to class and year to year. In this context, I was intrigued by a famous quote from a Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, who said, “Don't limit a child to your own learning, for he/she was born in another time.” This has changed my whole perspective of being taught and to teach. This experience taught me the power of teaching in changing people’s perception and led me to use my position as a platform for promoting women in science and young scientists from underrepresented minority groups. This mind frame and ideology will strengthen the scientific community to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.  
 
Mentorship can make a lasting impact on someone’s life.  Can you share the impact your mentoring experiences had on your life?  What is the best advice you received? 
Syed:
I was fortunate enough to work with amazing mentors throughout my scientific career which has shaped my teaching and learning abilities. They were against “forced material feeding” where lectures become a form of anguish to the students with little or no beneficial outcomes. Having been in this situation myself for some time, I have found that the most effective way of teaching is to achieve a fine balance between the quality and the quantity of study material while utilizing innovative approaches to make students feel comfortable in learning. During doctoral studies, my mentor, Dr. Kowluru, always said that research is not a job, it`s an art and you must put your soul into it for the betterment of human life. This is my advice for the next generation of scientists, too. 
 
We evolve from our life experiences.  If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self? 
Syed:
To be patient and persistent.  
 
If you could give one life advice to your future-self, what would it be? 
Syed:
To constantly think, ponder, reflect, and acquire knowledge.