Mohammad F. Usmani knew from an early age that he wanted to explore life at its smallest. Growing up in Lahore, Pakistan, his father made it a point to take him and his brother and sisters to museums and zoos nearly every week.
“I developed an interest in animals from there, just looking at various animals, observing how they behave and how they’re different from us,” said Usmani, a junior at Fordham College at Lincoln Center.
That interest stayed with him, and now Usmani, a Midwood, Brooklyn, resident who emigrated from Pakistan to New York three years ago, is on his way to becoming a true explorer of human life.
Along with 99 other undergraduates, he is pursuing a summer research fellowship at Princeton University, where he’ll be helping to research an example of life at its simplest: a single-celled organism called dictyostelium.
A 3.95 GPA and several essays explaining why microbiology interests him led to his Ivy League fellowship. Under the supervision of Edward Cox, Ph.D., professor of molecular biology, Usmani and his colleagues—70 from Princeton, 30 from other universities—will research an organism that may shed light on how humans evolved into complex beings.
Dictyostelium, he explained, spends most of its existence as a single cell, calling on its brethren only when it runs out of food.
“Other dictyostelium will be attracted to this specific one because it is releasing a chemical called chemotractin. Together, they will join to form a multi-cellular organism,” Usmani said. “As a uni-cellular organism, it cannot go more than a few centimeters. But as a multi-cellular organism, it can travel long distances in search of food. Whenever if finds food, it goes back to its unicellular stage.”
A double major in mathematics and natural sciences, Usmani said Fordham’s small class sizes led him to look outside Brooklyn for his education.
“You need individual attention to grow, especially in science,” he said. “You need an adviser at every point in your career.”
Usmani hopes that the hands-on research at Princeton combined with his Fordham education will set him on the path to earning a Ph.D. and M.D. and becoming a research physician.
He noted that while adding the math major to his studies increased his workload, it has proven invaluable to fully understanding science. Even if it means another eight years in college and medical school, he’s looking forward to using his skills to solve real problems.
“It pays off in the long run,” he said. “I’ll be doing things that will benefit human life.”