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IU Northwest students shine at internationally recognized research conference

Biology professor Ming Gao, 5 students visited Washington, D.C. for The Allied Genetics Conference

Apr 10, 2024

Six men stand in front of a government building holding a red flag. (Left-to-right): Dr. Ming Gao and students Yousef Nammari, Evan Kara, Deep Govani, Abraham Fielder and Raheem Mansoor take a photo with the IU flag during their trip to Washington D.C. and The Allied Genetics Conference. WASHINGTON — Dr. Ming Gao, Associate Professor of Biology at Indiana University Northwest, stood alongside five students — Abraham Fielder, Deep Govani, Evan Kera, Raheem Mansoor and Yousef Nammari — as they presented a poster of their research at The Allied Genetics Conference (TAGC) in Washington, D.C.

Among thousands of professors from top universities and internationally recognized scientists, the students received the same reaction many of Gao’s current and former students have.

“One of the presenters was walking around and she came up and asked, ‘What year of graduate school are you in?’” Nammari said. “We said, ‘Oh we’re actually undergraduate students.’ And she was shocked.”

These moments aren’t why Gao exposes his students to research early in their collegiate careers, but it doesn’t hurt to remind them how impressive their research is.

A recent trip to our nation’s capital provided more than just an ego boost for Gao and his students. It allowed them to learn groundbreaking research, see where some of the biggest decisions in the country are made and even talk to some of those making them.

Remarkable research meets exceptional opportunities

Gao holds his students to a high standard, but not as high as the standard they hold for themselves.

Research isn’t required for undergraduates at IU Northwest, but the opportunity for research sets it apart from its peer institutions.

“Most of the motivation comes from the students themselves,” Gao said. “I give the credit to them. I push a little bit, I guide, I mentor … but I’m lucky to have such self-driven students.”

At IU Northwest, the biology and chemistry research labs are almost entirely run by undergraduates. While Gao identifies students and invites those whose academic prowess and future goals would benefit from research, the students come in before work, after work and even on the weekends, such as Nammari, a senior biology major with minors in chemistry and psychology.

Gao’s research, which he began about 10 years ago, focuses on fertility. His lab studies the Drosophila — the common fruit fly — whose genes share striking similarities to humans. Through their research, the hope is to understand the genes and how they affect germline development.

“What we tried to figure out was how does this work and why is it so important in female reproducibility?” said Mansoor, a sophomore biology major with a minor in chemistry. “… We think that if we can figure out why this is so important in the fly, we can also figure out why it’s important to human beings in the future.”

A group of students talks to a man in in a suit. IU Northwest professor Ming Gao and his students talk to U.S. Rep. Frank J. Mrvan in Washington, D.C. The work isn’t easy, but the rewards have certainly been worthwhile for Gao’s students. Last summer, Gao received a $409,000 grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which, in addition to funding his research, gives students opportunities to travel to conferences and have their research published in scientific journals.

In addition to absorbing so much information and presenting, the students, thanks to Indiana University’s Government Relations Office in Washington, D.C., toured the United States Capitol, met with U.S. Rep. Frank J. Mrvan and visited Senator Todd Young’s office.

“Since it was my first time going, seeing all the stuff I’ve seen in movies in real life was eye-opening, it was an amazing experience,” Mansoor said. “Speaking with (Mrvan) was also a highlight of the trip. It was cool seeing the person you elected and being able to speak with them.”

Preparing our future doctors for success

Most of the students in Gao’s research lab are in a pre-professional program at IU Northwest.

“It’s essential for them to get access to medical-related research as undergraduates,” Gao said. “It plays a huge part in their application to graduate and professional schools. … This is something I think they should brag about in their undergraduate career, which will contribute to their research strength, to their academic abilities and their future careers.”

Learn more about IU Northwest’s pre-professional programs

Gao’s students will go on to graduate school, medical school and become future doctors, dentists and more. He often tells them, “Hey, don’t forget to send me that VIP card when you open a clinic near my house!”

While the research has been beneficial in aiding Mansoor’s goal of going to medical school, attending the genetics conference opened his eyes to perhaps one of the most important and overlooked parts of research — communication. A group of people stand in front of a poster. Dr. Ming Gao and his students post in front of their poster presentations at The Allied Genetics Conference in Washington, D.C.

“The most important part of research is being able to tell everyone what your findings are,” Mansoor said. “We were able to lean into that heavily in our presentation where we were telling everyone what we did. … We also acted as listeners, absorbing any information from the keynote speakers.”

Nammari, who joined Gao’s lab in January 2023, echoed how important undergraduate research opportunities are.

“Having research on your resume will set you apart from candidates in the application process,” Nammari said. “… it’s showing that you are making the effort to get published or you are making an effort to contribute to research and find answers to questions we are asking.”

Nammari is a pre-med student who also completed the coursework for the pre-dental track and will be shadowing this summer before deciding to pursue either medical or dental school.

Whichever path he chooses, Nammari is confident the opportunities afforded to him at IU Northwest have set him up for success.

“Doing research, it puts you above and beyond the other applicants,” Nammari said. “If you do it in your undergrad, that’s a sign that you’ll be willing and able to do that in your schooling later on.”

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