Supportive mentors help UMBC STEM BUILD undergraduates grow into confident scientists

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By:  Sarah Hansen (


Some people know they want to be scientists from a young age. Others take a winding path on their way to a research career. Students in the BUILD Training Program (BTP) at UMBC begin their journeys as part of a cohort with preparatory activities and shared research experiences.  Their journeys often continue with supportive faculty who help them explore whether research is right for them.


Aleem Mohamed, a junior studying biological sciences, initially imagined pursuing an M.D. “I knew I always wanted to help people, so an M.D. seemed like the obvious choice,” he says. But after conducting research with Vic Sivanathan, a UMBC visiting researcher from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for almost two years, and being part of BTP for three, Mohamed has developed a clearer vision of the career path he wants to pursue. “Dr. Sivanathan has inspired me to further my education into research by pursuing an M.D-Ph.D.”

Mohamed draws from his experience as a first-generation American in finding the passion and motivation to steadfastly pursue such an ambitious educational path. “I know the struggle my parents went through to provide me with ample opportunities to succeed,” he says, “so achieving my goals is way of showing them my gratitude.”


“It has been rewarding to watch Aleem transition from a student learning to do research to a researcher,” shares Sivanathan. “To me, this was exemplified most when Aleem stopped asking what the next experiment he had to do was, and instead asked about the multitude of specific steps required for the experiment.” Mohamed works on the SEA-Phages project with Sivanathan, where they seek to isolate new bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacterial cells) and characterize new bacterial hosts for the phages.


Ifeoma “Fefe” Azinge, another third-year BTP Trainee and  junior studying biological sciences, has grown into her scientific identity since she began a project last fall with guidance from mentor Jeff Leips, professor of biological sciences. “Dr. Leips gave me enough room to come up with my own hypothesis, my own predictions, and how I wanted to test them,” she says. “He helped me start to think of myself as a scientist because in his lab I saw myself using the scientific method and being able to use different methods to analyze my results.”


Leips came to his research career along a winding road and he shares that experience with students, emphasizing that it’s ok to take a unique path. Working at a regulatory agency early in his career, Leips became concerned that decisions were being made without sound scientific backing. This inspired him to pursue the studies he thought were needed. “Once I started to actually do science, I fell in love with it,” he says. “While the questions I've worked on are constantly changing, the drive to understand different aspects of the world around us challenges and excites me every day.”


Azinge’s project in Leips’ lab explores how hypertension drugs influence stress responses, using the fruit fly as a model system. “Fefe and her lab partner have really taken control of the project and become more independent,” he says. After Azinge’s original experimental design wasn’t successful, the duo redesigned the project to avoid the first iteration’s pitfalls. “She’s a hard-working student who is developing into a scientist,” Leips says.


UMBC’s STEM BUILD research collaborations also extend to partner institutions across the region. Marc Taraban, research assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at University of Maryland, Baltimore, mentors Kellie-Ann Kelly, a junior biological sciences major at UMBC and another member of the BTP’s first cohort. “She has become a very diligent and inquisitive researcher, sometimes paying attention to details that escape the observation of her mentor,” Taraban says. “I’m excited to have such a colleague!”


Providing mentorship in lab techniques, experimental design, and critical thinking is core to supporting BUILD Trainees’ success, whether their research is with bacteria, fruit flies, or pharmaceuticals. As Vic Sivanathan reflects, “Science is a process, and so is learning to become a scientist.”


The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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