Meet Dr. Ahmed Badran, born in Germany, having lived in Egypt and moving to Tucson, Arizona, Dr. Badran was an incredibly gifted STEM student and excellent swimmer at Tucson High Magnet School (THMS). Knowing what a pipette and centrifuge was at 10 or 11 years old, Dr. Badran was exposed to a very diverse set of science and knew the hallmarks of molecular biology at a very young age.
His journey with SARSEF began when he was selected to represent Southern Arizona at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis, Indiana in 2006. Ahmed was bright beyond his years and was generous and humble in sharing his insights and knowledge of biology and chemistry with his teacher, Dr. Margaret Wilch, Ph.D, SARSEF’s Director of Research, and his classmates.
As a THMS student, Dr. Badran worked in the lab of Professor Indraneel (Neel) Ghosh, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Arizona. Upon graduating high school, he attended the University of Arizona where he continued his research in Dr. Ghosh’s lab until he graduated. Dr. Badran was awarded the prestigious Beckman Scholar award in 2008 as well as the top award as an undergraduate. He earned numerous other awards throughout his undergraduate and graduate school career.
Dr. Badran earned his B.Sc. in Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics and Molecular & Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. Subsequently, he earned his Ph.D. in Chemical Biology from Harvard University under the guidance of Prof. David R. Liu, leading the development and application of rapid methods for continuous directed evolution. Following that, he is a Principal Investigator and Fellow of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard where his lab is developing new technologies to reprogram protein translation. To learn more about Dr. Ahmed Badran’s lab at the Scripps Research Institute, click here.
To the left is Dr. Badrans team from the Badran Lab, located at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. They combine principles of chemical biology, bioengineering, directed evolution, genome editing and synthetic biology to (re)engineer highly integrated cellular signaling networks towards researcher-defined function. The Badran Lab is currently supported by the Scripps Research Institute, NIH Director’’s Early Independence Award, NASA, DTRA, and NIBIB.
Dr. Ahmed Badran was an incredible, bright, and humble student, who is now addressing issues of immediate global impact, namely antimicrobial development, biologics production, information maintenance and transmission, and climate change. We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Badran and learn more about his experience with SARSEF and STEM journey.
What was your relationship to science growing up?
I began interacting with science at a young age. My parents, both of whom are scientists, had a deep respect for their work and what science could teach us about the world around us. They instilled that passion in me from a young age: they spoke with pride about how they contributed to the sum of human knowledge, and discoveries that they made every day. Unsurprisingly, I wanted to be a pioneer like them, so I followed in their footsteps and became a scientist.
How did your interest in science develop?
I’ve always found science interesting. But some of my earliest fascinations came from astronomy. It was exciting to me that researchers could point telescopes up into the sky, watch how the stars and celestial bodies moved, and predict how they would behave years in the future with great accuracy. I remember first learning about the Pillars of Creation, a dense concentration of gas and dust more than 6000 light years away. The image was breathtaking. But I later learned that it no longer existed: since light from this formation takes over 6000 years to arrive to Earth, the gas and dust probably dissipated long ago. This duality of beauty and impermanence was key to my fascination with science.
What was the first project you presented at the SARSEF Fair?
My work at the SARSEF Fair was done in the Ghosh lab at the University of Arizona. It focused on creating sensors to quickly and accurately monitor how proteins interact with one another. My approach relied on using fluorescent proteins, which can be made in living cells and quantified easily. These sensors could detect so-called protein-protein interactions and in doing so would change the fluorescent output of the system. By measuring this change, I could quantify the of the protein-protein interaction.
Can you talk more about the research you completed in high school?
My work during SARSEF got me excited about making sensors for other biological activities. Just as proteins interact with one another, they can also interact with blueprints of information in cells: DNA and RNA. I became interested in using proteins that naturally bind to specific DNA and RNA sequence, but instead using them to report of new or engineered sequences. This technique could then be applied to detect mutations in DNA or RNA, or even quantify damage that would happen in different environments or disease states.
What was it like being a Finalist at ISEF?
Being an ISEF Finalist was one of the most pivotal moments of my career. While at ISEF, I interacted with students from all over the country and the world, all of whom were engaged in research as high school students. But the most exciting element of ISEF was the diversity of science: mathematicians, chemists, biologists, physicists. And some students were even bridging gaps between fields to create hybrid fields. I was struck by the quality of all of their work and thrilled to interact with peers who valued and enjoyed science as much as I did.
How did you choose your career?
After SARSEF and ISEF, I was admitted to the University of Arizona as a biochemistry major, and continued my trajectory in studying proteins. Their diverse shapes and functions fascinated me. The more I learned about these molecular machines which are the workhorses of the cell, the more I began to think about modifying their functions or combing two or more existing activities into a single protein. So as an undergraduate, I explored different types of proteins and started to combine them in unique ways to create activities that may not exist in Nature. This field is called bioengineering, and the field with which I now most closely associate.
Talk a little bit about your current work.
My work now has changed quite a bit. My lab is interested in the most fundamental biological process that gives rise to proteins in cells: translation. This process is orchestrated by Nature’s most essential and complex machine, the ribosome. This machine decodes the patterns of bases in RNA to give rise of tens of thousands of unique proteins in our cells every day. But how exactly does it do this? And why does it translate the genetic code in the way that it does? If we can answer these questions, not only do we learn much about how natural biological systems achieve this important activity, but we can go a step further to create technologies to make artificial proteins with new activities. These could be useful to help us sense and respond to disease states, or perhaps even solve critical problems like climate change. My lab is excited about all of these topics, and we are actively working to address many of these important questions.
Can you walk me through a typical day for you as an assistant professor?
As an assistant professor, most of my time is spent on the bench next to my students and postdocs. We plan and carry out experiment every day together. Beyond that, I spend a few hours every day working on manuscripts or grant applications, both of which are critical to academic science. Manuscripts are the way by which we share our findings with the world, and tell them about the exciting innovations we’ve made. Grants, on the other hand, are laboratory funds that are graciously given to us by our funding agencies to support our work.
What advice do you have for students currently considering a career in science?
There are many different types of science out there, and it can be difficult to know which one is the right one for you. Explore different avenues until you find something that you really enjoy. It may take longer to find, but it’s a much more worthwhile investment than doing something you don’t enjoy.
What do you do for fun?
When I’m not doing science or mentoring students, I like to play a lot of sports outdoors like soccer and swimming. I’ve also recently started hiking and got into amateur astronomy.
Thank you Dr. Ahmed Bedran for your interview, insight, and knowledge you bring to the world of science! Motivated by passion and curiosity, your research has truly made a difference in addressing issues of immediate global impact for a better tomorrow.
If you would like to know more about SARSEF and how you can become engaged in STEM, volunteer for our organization, or donate, visit us at (https://sarsef.org/)