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PennPORT(al) into a Thriving Science Career

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It’s no surprise that Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow in Neuroscience, is starting his own lab at Penn in July. After all, he created his first lab when he was just 14 years old.

What’s surprising is the journey he took to get here – from the home he grew up in located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, to North Carolina, and as far as Qatar – all to come back home to Penn. 

His career starts in ninth grade honors Biology at Central High School, in which students were given resources for one major year-long science project. 

“My parents allowed me to take over the third floor of our house with hundreds of crayfish,” Abdus-Saboor said. “I was testing rates of regeneration. From hypotheses to testing, I had my lab notebooks and everything I needed.”

Abdus-Saboor cut appendages, fed his subjects ginseng, and measured them with a ruler to see whether ginseng in the crayfishes’ diet would accelerate limb regeneration.

The fruits of this labor earned him first prize in a city-wide science fair and further success at a state science fair. More importantly, the experience solidified science as a future career goal, leading Abdus-Saboor to enter North Carolina A&T State University as pre-vet animal science major. 

He loved animals and science, and the historically black college showed him that becoming a scientist was within reach.

“I never knew any African American scientists; it was important for me to identify role models who looked like me and shared similar experiences who were excelling in science,” Abdus-Saboor said.


Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, PhD

Freshman year, he performed nutrition research on a swine farm, feeding pigs different diets and measuring hormones in their blood.

Sophomore year, Abdus-Saboor interned at veterinary clinics in Philadelphia, and quickly learned that this was not his calling.

“It was a lot of spaying and neutering; I wasn’t excited about that, or challenged,” he explains.

So, Abdus-Saboor went back to the drawing board, next taking a basic science internship at Merck the winter of his junior year in college.

While at Merck, he worked with a team conducting experiments tackling how drugs affect the body. Personally, he also learned that a lab setting was the best place for him to build a career.

During the summer between junior and senior years of college, Abdus-Saboor found a summer internship in a lab at Penn, which tasked him with developmental and molecular biology work such as delving into the role of specific genes in heart development in mice.

“The pace was fast, and I learned a lot of new things,” Abdus-Saboor said. “It opened my mind to how to conduct experiments to improve human health and our understanding of how the body works.”

The opportunity was made possible by the summer undergraduate internship program (SUIP).  

“That program was phenomenal, transformative,” Abdus-Saboor said. “It was my first intense research experience. I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but it was just a vague and abstract thought. Being in that program allowed me to see that I could run my own research lab one day.”

The internship also gave an overview of the graduate admissions process, how to craft a personal statement, and complete applications. Experience that Abdus-Saboor says was invaluable.

“They really coached us and mentored us to get us into PhD programs,” he said, adding that it was this experience that showed him that he wanted to pursue a doctorate at Penn.

In his senior year at A&T, Abdus-Saboor worked in a genetics lab, studying genetic mutations in roundworms and how they performed in behavioral tests. Two weeks after graduation, he enrolled in a PhD program at Penn in Cell and Molecular Biology.

He liked the model system of the roundworm, so one of his first priorities was connecting with Meera Sundaram, PhD, an associate professor of Genetics, who happened to be working in that same type of roundworm that Abdus-Saboor grew to love at A&T.

Advised by Sundaram, Abdus-Saboor joined a team that expanded the body of knowledge into gene mutations and their role in cancer development. 

The genes in humans and worms are similar in DNA structure, but worms have a thousand cells, whereas humans have trillions. The simple, primitive system of the roundworm offers many research opportunities as they share many of the same genes that humans have.

Outside of the lab, Ishmael’s work as a teaching assistant for two undergraduate courses at Penn fostered his love of teaching.

After graduation, Abdus-Saboor continued his career in academia, completing two postdoctoral fellowships – one that took him to Qatar at a branch campus of the Weill Cornell Medical College– to continue training in genetics and molecular biology, this time looking at the nervous system.

“As you chart your career leaving graduate school and moving into a postdoc, you think, ‘what’s a field that can keep me busy for a lifetime?’” Abdus-Saboor said. “Neuroscience is so intriguing and wide open. There’s still more questions than answers.” At the end of the two-year fellowship, he published research about olfaction — sensory neurobiology — including new insights into how we engage with our environment and how our brain processes signals. For his second postdoc, he returned to Penn as a PennPORT fellow.

PennPORT, or Penn-Postdoctoral Opportunities in Research and Teaching, is a NIH-sponsored program that combines a traditional postdoctoral research experience at

Penn with a mentored teaching experience at one or more partnering minority-serving institutions.

PennPORT helped Abdus-Saboor develop his research skills in the lab, as well as his teaching skills, which he honed while teaching courses at Rutgers-Camden and Lincoln Universities on the history of science.

For the past 11 years, the PennPORT program has fostered exchange between Penn and three partnering schools (Rutgers-Camden, Lincoln, and Delaware County Community College), providing undergraduates with successful role models like Abdus-Saboor and enhancing research-oriented teaching available in the region. The program funds 15 postdoctoral fellows at any given time (five new ones each year). 

PennPORT is one of about 20 Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) programs around the country, and is funded by the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Originally created by Yvonne Paterson, PhD, a professor of Microbiology, it is now directed by Janis Burkhardt, PhD, a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, together with co-directors Arnaldo Diaz Vazquez, PhD, program co-director and assistant dean of research training programs, director of the Office of Research Diversity and Training, and an adjunct assistant professor of pharmacology, and Marybeth Gasman, PhD, a professor of Education at Penn.

“PennPORT fellows are an amazing group of individuals who are changing the face of science,” said Burkhardt. “Their presence on the Penn campus is palpable, as they tend to be leaders in education and science outreach. With their formal training in both research and teaching as well as their commitment to diversity, it’s no wonder that they are sought after for faculty positions.” 

In addition to the current group of 15 fellows, PennPORT now has over 50 alumni in academic faculty positions around the country.  A recent study performed by the NIH shows that scholars from PennPORT and its sister IRACDA programs are just as successful as traditional postdocs in obtaining academic faculty positions but they are much more diverse, and much more likely to choose faculty positions where they will have significant impact on undergraduate education, especially for minority students. 

“It’s exciting to see the PennPORT network grow, and to watch all the positive influences we are having at many levels, in many places,” Burkhardt said.

Currently, Abdus-Saboor is dissecting the neural mechanisms that explain the “crosstalk,” or unwanted signals between touch and pain, funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Enrichment Program.

Additionally, last year, he received a five-year, $1 million dollar K99 NIH Pathway to Independence grant to determine the functions of molecularly defined populations of nociceptors in spinal and dental pain.

These grants lay the groundwork for Abdus-Saboor to start an assistant professor of Biology position at Penn in the School of Arts and Sciences and set up his own lab with a team of students and postdocs in July…and this time, he won’t need his parent’s house to set up shop.


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