ARIEL POURMORADY/THE HOYA MAKING BRAINWAVES IN NEUROSCIENCE Wardah Athar’s (COL ‘13) research furthers medical developments through a better understanding of brain functions.
MAKING BRAINWAVES IN NEUROSCIENCE Wardah Athar’s (COL ‘13) research furthers medical developments through a better understanding of brain functions.

Wardah Athar (COL ’13) is not your typical science student. While many neurobiology majors may be pouring over orgo textbooks in Regents as their ticket to medical school, Athar is busy applying her studies outside of the classroom. A recent recipient of the Mitchell Scholarship, which will fund her graduate studies in Dublin, Ireland, Athar will be focusing on a union between medicine and research in order to further medical developments. In her free time, she is also completing a certificate in Islam and Muslim-Christian understanding and is heavily involved in research on campus — specifically, working in Professor Donoghue’s neurobiology lab studying cerebral cortical development.

What else are you involved in on campus?

I’ve conducted research in a developmental neuroscience lab since my freshman year, so I spend a lot of my time in a white lab coat playing with mice and cackling evilly to myself (but really). I’m also a member of the Carroll Fellows Initiative and the Howard Hughes Scholars Program and am co-chair of the Undergraduate Research Ambassadors, so I’m really invested in highlighting undergraduate research on campus, helping other students find research opportunities and just generally telling everyone how awesome research is. I’m also the current president of the Muslim Students Association. Lastly, I’m a teaching assistant for BIOL-101 and a leader for the ESCAPE retreat program, which is awesome and all freshmen should go on. 

What led you to do research here at Georgetown? 

Honestly, I kind of fell into it. I started here staunchly pre-med, and I just wanted to get done with undergrad so I could go to med school. Luckily, though, I met a professor, Maria Donoghue, during an Intro Bio seminar and really clicked with her. I went to one of her lab meetings, she offered me a spot to work there in the summer, I took it and I’m still working there nearly four years later.

Working in her lab gave me this sense of ownership of my work that I hadn’t gotten from any of my courses, and that ownership was really what caused me to fall in love with neuroscience and with research. I just think it’s so cool that when I get results from an experiment, I’m the first person in the whole world to know that small piece of science. Yes, my friends and family have alerted me to the fact that this is super dorky.

What would you say are the biggest benefits to being involved in undergraduate research?

Research gives you ownership of your work. You get real expertise, real knowledge, in your research area, and that’s very difficult to come by as an undergrad. So even if you don’t want to be an academic or a researcher later in life, it’s valuable to develop this extra skill set and to obtain real expertise.

What was it like to win the Mitchell Scholarship?

It was insane. I knew that they call everyone on the same day as the interview, so the waiting was driving me crazy. Still, though, when I got the call that evening, I was just in shock. I had some friends over and they were jumping up and down and screaming while I was still talking to the Mitchell director, and then I called my parents in Saudi Arabia, where it was about 3 a.m. It was all very surreal, and I’m just incredibly thankful for the opportunity.

Looking forward, my Mitchell year will be a great way of not just studying neuroscience but also of building ties between American science and Irish science. I’m also really excited to travel! The 12 Mitchell scholars are spread out all over the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, so there’s a lot of travelling between cities to visit each other and also a lot of traveling to other places in Europe. I didn’t go abroad during my time at Georgetown, so I certainly plan to make up for it next year.

What does this mean for your post-graduation plans? Med school? Career?

After my Mitchell year, I’m hoping to enter a joint MD/PhD program to become a physician scientist. I’ve always wanted to practice medicine because it’s a tangible way of making an impact and serving others, but I’ve realized that medicine alone isn’t enough. We need to better understand how the brain functions before we can create new treatments, and the only way to do that is through research. I think that marrying research and medicine is a way of having a meaningful, immediate impact while also looking to the future and creating a knowledge base that will help us develop more sophisticated medical techniques in years to come. I love the idea of using individual medical cases to inform research projects and then using discoveries from those projects to better treat future patients!


What is the most valuable thing you’ve gained from your research experience?

The realization that failure is a part of life. In all honesty, 97 percent of the time, our experiments don’t work. We believe that the science gods have a very mean sense of humor. We have to keep redoing experiments and changing them and troubleshooting them before we can even begin to think about getting real data, and that’s a very humbling experience. It’s not that I think anyone should accept failure but rather that we will all encounter it at one point or another, so the only solution is to get up and throw yourself at the problem again, from a different direction.

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