Interviews with Scientists: Mohammed Alawami

Interviews with Scientists: Mohammed Alawami
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2 months ago

Interviews with Scientists: Mohammed Alawami

In the next in our Interviews with Scientists series we spoke with Mohammed Alawami of Cambridge University. He is a PhD student in physics with an MRes in Sensor Technologies and an MSc in Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine. 

Mohammed is also the President and Founder of ReachSci, a programme enabling underrepresented individuals to do outstanding research in STEM through workshops and independent research projects. He is also a Co-founder of Cambridge Nucleomics.

We spoke to Mohammed about his career so far, the aims of the ReachSci programme, and his advice for early career science researchers.

 

Thanks for speaking with us, Mohammed! Please can you tell us a little bit about your current role at Cambridge University?

I’m a PhD student in Physics and am currently in my second year. As well as being a student, I play a role in helping underrepresented students reach their goals faster, ensuring they don’t make the same mistakes and go through the same challenges I went through. With this in mind, I try to help any university or student-led initiative that aims to increase equality, diversity, and inclusion, especially in postgraduate degrees.

 

What is the focus of your PhD research?

Although the name of my degree is Physics, I’m actually developing new technologies to aid in analyzing therapeutics and disease diagnostics by using technologies developed in the physics department.

 

What excites you most about the work that you do?

I work with a very small sensor that is called a nanopore. It’s like a very tiny hole that I can use to analyze DNA and RNA. This technology is so amazing in its sensing ability that it can sense individual molecules, as in seeing one DNA molecule directly, and it can measure things and structures that are more than 10,000 times smaller than the width of a hair. The ability to do this always fascinates and excites me, and this is opening the door to many things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

 

Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so why?

Yes, I have always wanted to be a scientist - scientists were my childhood heroes. Doing science to me is like the childhood exploration that we naturally do when we are little, and I guess this innate feeling has never left me and still excites me, and I find it very enjoyable.

 

You are the founder and president of ReachSci - how did the idea for the programme come about?

When I joined Cambridge University I opened a social media account and over the space of a year I used it to help thousands of students to excel academically. Eventually I realized that this wasn’t enough, and what students actually needed was practical training to gain the skills. From those students’ needs the idea for ReachSci was formed.

 

What are the aims of the ReachSci global programme?

We have many aims, and below are the three that are key:

  • Make high quality research training accessible to anyone anywhere to help students no matter where they are from to do outstanding research.
  • Establish connections and networks for aspiring young scientists to open new doors for them to start establishing their research careers.
  • Help these students build the confidence in their skills and abilities and show them that their thoughts and creativity is important to drive research forwards.

 

Why are initiatives like this so important?

Multiple reasons, below are my top picks:

- Diversity is very low in post-graduate education and a lot of effort is needed to address this pressing challenge. Diversity is not only important for fairness but it plays a crucial part in driving innovation to the next level.

- The quality of research training across the world is not at the standard we would hope it to be. For example, I have attended multiple universities and have always been looking for a good research focused university to get the right training, but didn’t find it until I came to Cambridge. What I have learned at Cambridge is so exceptional that my previous training isn’t anywhere near the same level. For this I’d like to acknowledge two people who have made the biggest impact, my PhD supervisor Professor Ulrich Keyser and my PhD mentor Filip Bošković. This quality of research training should be accessible to anyone anywhere.

- Many universities don’t even consider training their students in hands-on practical research at undergraduate level and don’t even expose them to it. This is very problematic as that’s how you get students interested in research in the first place.

 

What more do you think could be done to encourage underrepresented individuals to study STEM subjects?

First, we need to show students from all kinds of backgrounds that STEM research is for everyone, it doesn’t matter how you were brought up and you don’t need to be super smart to do it, everyone has the ability to contribute in their own way.

Second, we need to expose students to research early. Research is fun, and if done right I think anyone could be interested in it, because I believe all of us have done it in a way or another in our lives, you just need to find what interests you and you’ll be hooked.

Finally, we need to talk a lot to our audience and understand what they actually need, rather than trying to do what we think best for them, and this is something we are working really hard to improve, but it’s not easy.

 

What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?

That small contributions matter in anything you do, whether you are contributing to your own development or your community development. Small steps taken over years make a huge difference in your personal and community progress. Don’t think that there is a skill you cannot learn, small steps in self-development taken over time can make you one of the best in that skill. Same for community contributions. Don’t ever think that you don’t matter. Small improvements, even if only done by an individual, can make a big difference over the years.

 

What key piece of advice would you give to a young scientist just starting out in their career?

Start exploring different areas of research as early as you can. The first and second topics might not be interesting, but that doesn’t mean research isn’t for you, you’ll eventually find a topic that is so interesting that it will feel like a hobby to you.

 

How do you see your career developing in the future/where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I love STEM R&D and teaching and I see myself leading companies that are developing new cutting-edge technologies to make our lives better, and leading initiatives to make education and research more accessible.

 

Who has been your greatest role model, and why?

Role models for me change based on the circumstances and difficulties I’m facing at a specific time. Currently it’s Jack Ma, for expressing success in the following attributed quote: “Today is hard, tomorrow is harder, but the day after tomorrow is Sunshine.”

I feel this speaks to how I feel about success, and for your information I still think I’m in the today segment!

 

Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most? (e.g. hobbies, passion projects, etc.)

I really enjoy swimming, gardening, and exploring creatures that live in the sea and on beaches.

 

What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery/invention of all time?

In my opinion it’s the discovery of DNA.

 

What’s your favourite science joke OR science quote?

“If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough” which is attributed to Albert Einstein.

 

Is there anything else you would like to tell us, eg. specific issues or initiatives in science that you are involved with or are passionate about?

A big issue in research is the limited focus on translating the research into something directly useful to the public. Most of the research outcome stays as mere results within papers without any direct value to the public. One programme I was part of is the EnterpriseTECH STAR at Cambridge University, which is led by the chemist Dr. Rebecca Myers from the Judge Business School. This programme helps PhD students turn their research ideas, or ideas in general, into commercial products that can bring direct benefits for a large number of people. This is one of the very few programmes I have seen that has delivered at the highest standards to help drive researchers to translate their research into something useful to the public. This is another area of interest that I’m really passionate about and I would like to get involved in bringing such programmes and training to a much larger audience and make them more accessible.

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Thank you so much for speaking with us Mohammed. We wish you all the best with your PhD!

Connect with Mohammed:

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