Postdoc wins $138,000 NSF Research Fellowship in Biology

Postdoc wins $138,000 NSF Research Fellowship in Biology

Rice Academy Postdoctoral Fellow DurreShahwar Muhammad said she was thrilled when she received an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in biology, which granted her $138,000.

“I didn’t expect to receive it, but I’m always shocked when I get anything. The project I’m working on will take time to develop. Having additional funding allows me to extend my time here at Rice,” she said.

Muhammad, who earned her bachelor’s in biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago, considers herself an unconventional student.

“I am the first grandchild in my family to ever go beyond a bachelor’s degree,” she explained. “I got pregnant my sophomore year of college and gave birth to my daughter my junior year. It made things extremely real for me.”

With the support of her family, Muhammad stayed in school and majored in biology. She said she expected to go into something medical, never considering graduate school. But that would change during her senior year when she took a course in advanced cell biology.

The professor of that course was a single mother who ran a research lab on campus and invited Muhammad to do a research project.

“That experience,” said Muhammad, “turned me off to science. She kept talking about grants, and in my mind, her salary was tied to the grants. I thought, ‘Who wants to live like this?’ I had no other knowledge of research or grad school.”

Thinking that her research career was behind her, Muhammad went into nonprofit work and started applying to MBA programs. Her undergraduate research adviser had other ideas.

“I got an email from her, and she said, ‘You wrote one of the best undergraduate theses I’ve I seen from my students, why don’t you apply for a lab tech position in this new professor’s lab?’ I told her no. But then I got an email from another professor, encouraging me to come for an interview. So I did, completely underprepared and hit it off.”

While she worked in the lab, Muhammad said she realized that what she thought about research was completely wrong. When her Principal Investigator moved to NC State University, Muhammad worked for another two years for her undergraduate research adviser at UIC, considering graduate school as a real possibility.

“People kept telling me, ‘People in grad school have children, you can do this!’ My former PI who was at NC State told me to apply there, that her department was family friendly and she knew I would thrive there. So I did.”

While at NC State, Muhammad said she fell in love with research and plant biology.

“Plant biology wasn’t my initial attraction,” she said. “But a professor I had at NC State began a class by saying, ‘ We rely on plants for everything - food, air quality and material goods; you cannot go a day without using something that came from a plant.’ That sold it for me. I realized I don’t need to do cancer research. I can do research on plants for horticulture, agriculture, material production, medicine or biochemistry purposes - and it will be impactful.”

A year before graduating with her Ph.D., Muhammad attended a research conference, scanning a schedule and wondering what her next step should be - when she noticed a talk on peroxisomes by a graduate student in Dr. Bonnie Bartel’s lab.

“The protein I worked on had a connection with peroxisomes, so I decided to go to the talk. Afterward, I thought, this is interesting, this is new. I went home and did more research on peroxisomes, Rice and Dr. Bartel. I reached out to her and began discussing a potential postdoc opportunity.”

Dr. Bartel worked with Muhammad on her Rice Academy of Fellows application, and when the offer came in Muhammad said she considered it carefully. “New adventures can be intimidating, but after spending a few hours with the Bartel lab members - I was sold. The environment was welcoming and fostered scientific growth.”

Muhammad said she enjoys the flexibility of academic life and looks forward to the work she’ll do at Rice, and the impact that her research will have on the Rice community and the world.

“I’m taking everything in stride and moving forward,” she said.

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