Wayne State University
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My interview with...Ridwan Alam

What was your first involvement with the Honors College, and what activities/service projects/volunteer work did you take part in while being a part of the Honors College? How did those experiences enrich your experience with the College?

My first involvement with the Honors College was through MedStart and the Honors 1000/2000 courses I took as a freshman. I still remember analyzing the public transit system in Detroit as part of my Honors 2000 service project, and it’s great to see the strides the city is making in developing the Woodward Light Rail. During my time at Honors, I regularly volunteered at the Huda Clinic, which is a free clinic located on Davison Avenue. I also served as an on-air personality and producer on WAYN Radio, our own student-run radio station! These experiences enhanced my college experience unlike any other, as I developed a real sense of Detroit pride that I would have otherwise lacked. Even after moving to Baltimore, I still rave about Detroit and talk very highly of our city and its rejuvenation. Detroit vs Everybody!

Talk about the shadowing opportunities you had as a freshman. How did those opportunities help shape your career path? How did it help your grow as a researcher?  

With Henry Ford Hospital and the Detroit Medical Center in such close proximity, the shadowing opportunities were limitless at Wayne State. More than anything, these shadowing experiences confirmed my desire to pursue medicine as a career. I gravitated towards the patient-centered aspect of the job, and I could see myself in a physician’s shoes one day. Unexpectedly, shadowing also sparked my interest in research; even though medicine has made amazing strides in the past century alone, there are still many questions that doctors need answered. I wanted to be a part of this intellectually stimulating academic society and help medicine move forward – that’s why research became one of my passions.

What research did you while at Henry Ford Hospital? At the Detroit Medical Center?

At Henry Ford Hospital, I worked with Dr. Sandra Rempel in the Department of Neurosurgery. I studied cellular signaling pathways in glioblastomas, which are the worst type of brain tumors. More specifically, I was performing experiments to figure out if certain proteins could be used as drug targets to help limit the spread of the tumor within the brain.

On the other side of campus, I worked with Dr. AHM Mahbubul Huq in the Department of Pediatric Neurology at DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Here, I reviewed patient charts to study the effectiveness an anti-epileptic medication in children with seizures. Since these medications have toxic side-effects at high doses, our goal was to figure out at which dose a physician should consider switching medications if patients are not seeing any improvements in their condition.

You had two papers published by the time you were a senior at Wayne State, one of which was published in the prestigious Neuro-Oncology journal. What were your papers on, and what did you learn by going through those experiences?

This gets a little technical, but I’ll try my best to keep things simple. The first paper, published in 2010, studied protein pathways called “SHC-RAF-ERK” and “AKT,” both of which signal brain tumor cells to spread into the healthy brain. The way these protein pathways are “turned on” is by another protein called “SPARC,” which is expressed by the brain tumor cells. “PTEN” is yet another protein that is called a “tumor suppressor,” and it does exactly what its name implies – it helps stop tumors by “turning off” protein pathways. However, the problem is that PTEN is mutated by brain tumor cells, so it does not do its job properly. Our goal was to see what would happen if we got these brain tumor cells to express PTEN properly in the presence of the nasty SPARC protein. What we found is that PTEN does help stop the spread of brain tumors through the SHC-RAF-ERK and AKT pathways even when SPARC is around.  

My second paper was published in 2013 and I was the first author, which means that I took the lead on the project. It follows the same concept that I mentioned above, but this time, we were studying the “HSP27” pathway. We found again that PTEN helps to stop the spread of brain tumors through HSP27 even in the presence of SPARC. With these two papers, we found that SHC-RAF-ERK, AKT, and HSP27 are all drug targets that can be exploited to help stop the spread of brain tumors. The next step is to keep expanding our knowledge and perhaps design a drug to target these proteins.

I learned more than I can possibly describe in just a couple sentences. To start, I learned that research is incredibly difficult. It required a phenomenal amount of resilience, determination, and willpower to not give up when my experiments repeatedly failed. Although I didn’t know it at the time, these obstacles prepared me for the better, as it gave me a certain confidence that can only be gained by facing failure head-on. I learned to troubleshoot, salvage situations, manage deadlines, and ask for help. Most importantly, I learned to create and value a strong support system, which consisted of my family, friends, and research professor. Without the help of these very special people, there is no way that I could have gotten through the tough times and be where I am today.

What made you choose to attend Johns Hopkins Medical School over Wayne State’s School of Medicine?

Wayne State is a phenomenal institution, and I have nothing but great things to say about the school that gave me the tools to be where I am today. I will admit, it was very difficult to leave home for unchartered territory, but I could not pass up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn at one of the best medical institutions in the world. Johns Hopkins provided me the chance to step out of my comfort zone and push myself to the limit by learning from some of the greatest minds in medicine. I just wish one of them could teach me how to cook.

You were profiled on Huffington Post’s August 2, 2013 blog “3 Steps to Starting a Great Research Project.” How were you selected, and what does that mean to your personally to be profiled in a national blog? What knowledge can you share that was beneficial for you when you started a research project?

I was the Student Services Chair on the Student Senate when I received a phone call from Project Lever, a start-up company focused on research. After directing them to the proper contacts for expansion to Wayne State, we got into a discussion about my own personal research experiences in college. In other words, I was selected to be profiled because I received a lucky phone call. It always means a lot when my efforts are recognized, especially on a national scale, but I want to stress that it is always a team effort consisting of family, friends, and mentors. I am grateful and honored to have this distinction, but I hope to make an even bigger impact in the future.

When starting a research project, it is really important to ensure that you pick a mentor who is willing to spend time teaching you. Keep in mind, they’re incredibly busy people too, so you will have to be realistic with your expectations. Having that face-to-face interaction once a week or every other week really goes a long way to develop a comfortable relationship between you two. It’s difficult to figure out from one meeting if you “click” with a specific research mentor, but that will come with time as long as you make your expectations clear.

What was the biggest thing you learned while going through the MedStart program and all of the experiences you had along with it?

Any achievement in your name is always a collective effort. Whether it is your family supporting your decisions, friends giving you advice, or mentors guiding you toward success, your achievements are a reflection of everyone’s desire to see you succeed. That’s why Academy Award speeches are always full of movie stars thanking others. Even they need the help of the production team to make them look good on the big screen, and the same applies for you at school. I always try to keep this in the back of my mind and keep in touch with the people who helped me through the tough times when I seriously doubted myself. Along those same lines, I also learned that I would love to pay it forward to the next generation of students, possibly through a career in academic medicine.

What kind of advice would you give incoming or current Honors students?

Don’t be afraid to change your goals as you develop your experiences. We all come in with a preconceived notion of what our college experience will be like, and I can nearly guarantee that none of us will live up to that dream – but that’s okay. Being a college student is a sacred, protected time that many of us will never get to experience again. It is a time for massive learning and experimenting both academically and socially, and our desires in life will inevitably change course with our experiences. As driven Honors students, it will be difficult when you face disappointments in your life. However, don’t let that stop you from working incredibly hard, constantly pursuing happiness, and always being kind. With this and some well-timed luck, you may find yourself in a position that is better than you could have imagined.