by Tahir Bhat

SRINAGAR: Kashmir neuroscientist, Dr Mubarak Hussain Syed, is among the 125 scientists from USA and Canada who were declared prestigious Sloan Research Fellows for 2023. Every one of them receives US $75000 to pursue their research within two years.

Dr Mubarak Hussain Syed is an assistant professor of Biology at The University of New Mexico and runs his own laboratory that has already helped solve certain mysteries of mind works in fruit flies.

The Alfred P Sloan Foundation announced 126 early-career scholars recently. These 125 scientists “represent the most promising scientific researchers working today” and their “achievements and potential place them among the next generation of scientific leaders in the US and Canada,” the Foundation statement reads.

The Fellowships are aimed at seeking to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists and scholars of outstanding promise. These are given in “recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field”.

“A Sloan Research Fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards available to young researchers, in part because so many past Fellows have gone on to become towering figures in science. Renowned physicists Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann were Sloan Research Fellows, as was mathematician John Nash, one of the fathers of modern game theory. 56 Fellows have received a Nobel Prize in their respective field, 17 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics, and 22 have won the John Bates Clark Medal in economics, including every winner since 2007,” the Foundation statement said.

“The fellowships are presented to researchers whose creativity, innovation, and research accomplishments make them stand out,” a statement posted on the University website said, insisting the fellowship is “one of the most competitive and prestigious awards available to early-career researchers”. It added: “They are also often seen as a marker of the quality of an institution’s science faculty and proof of an institution’s success in attracting the most promising junior researchers to its ranks.”

I am humbled and honoured; it feels good to see your peers recognize your work and trust your capabilities, which also adds many responsibilities.,” Syed told Kashmir Life. “Early in my independent scientific career, this recognition will tremendously help our research programme and mentoring activities. I am grateful to my dedicated and hardworking team at the University of New Mexico, especially my first two graduate students, who also happen to be from Kashmir. Thanks to my family, friends, and mentors who have supported me and mentored me to be a better person. Special thanks to the dedicated and hardworking team at JKScientists, who are doing transformative work to train and mentor the next-generation Kashmiri students.”

Asked where the new resources will be utilised, Dr Syed said the funds will be used to investigate fruit fly brain development. “Our research focuses on how neural stem cells generate central complex neurons,” he said. “The central complex is a conserved brain region among insects involved in many complex behaviours, including navigation and sleep. We will also use these funds to get pizzas for the students and trainees we mentor in Neural Diversity Lab.”

In the Neural Diversity Lab of the University of New Mexico, Dr Mubarak Hussain Syed (extreme right) with his scholars. KL Image: Special Arrangement

Syed heads the University’s Neural Diversity Lab investigates the genetic and molecular mechanisms regulating neural diversity – from stem cells to neural circuits. “The findings will help uncover the fundamental principles of nervous system development and potentially to understand and treat neuro-developmental disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, ADHD, and autism,” the university said. Right now, the laboratory is investigating how neural stem cells specify neuron types essential for olfactory navigation and sleep behaviours.

Fruit flies, it may be recalled here, offer an excellent model system to understand the genetic basis of nervous system development and function. Syed has been working with fruit flies for over a decade and is known as the “Fly Guy.”

Already, the laboratory has identified a novel role of insect growth hormone in regulating neural stem cell temporal gene expression. Now they are testing if this hormonal signalling regulates the formation of diverse neuron types in the fruit fly brain.

While Syed has emerged as perhaps the first Kashmir scientist to get the prestigious fellowship, this is not the first competitive award he has got. In 2021, he was awarded the National Science Foundation CAREER award.

Dr Syed is also the founder of JK Scientists, a registered organisation that helps young scholars to navigate their career paths. Asked what his advice to aspiring scientists would be, he said: “Follow your passion; life is full of failures, but people only highlight success stories. I have failed most of the time and fail every day; persistence and consistency is the key. Value quality over quantity, and there are no shortcuts to achieving quality. I hope that in our region, talent gets recognition and the system starts nurturing early career scientists/scholars someday. Unfortunately, the current hiring system is losing quality researchers and future leaders. Stay motivated and hopeful, be kind and generous, and seek mentorship at your educational institution, JKScientists, or both. Inshallah, many among you will do better than me.”

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