When Mariam El-Ashmawy was in middle school, her father had a heart attack. For most kids, it would have been an altogether terrifying event, but El-Ashmawy admits to being a little intrigued.
“I remember being in the hospital and seeing a picture of the vessels in his chest. The doctor showed us where the blockage was, and I wanted to know why and how it happened,” she says. Her father survived—and the experience inspired El-Ashmawy to think about becoming a doctor. “It was a turning point for me to want to understand the human body,” she says.
The University of Texas Southwestern
Photo: Amy Gutierrez
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El-Ashmawy's plan to become a doctor seemed to be a perfect fit given her family's professional interests. After all, her mother is a college chemistry professor, and two of her grandparents are doctors. But “perfect” isn’t how El-Ashmawy would describe the challenges she faced growing up outside Dallas, Texas. Both of her parents emigrated from Egypt to the United States, and, though El-Ashmawy was born and grew up in the Dallas suburb of Lewisville, she felt—and looked—different than her neighbors. “I didn’t dress like other kids in school, and I followed different traditions,” she says. “I grew up learning Arabic before English.” As she worked hard in school, she tried hard to fit in with her peers, while still embracing her heritage and cultural background.
El-Ashmawy focused on becoming a doctor until her freshman year at Arizona State University, when a social psychology professor asked if she would join his lab as a research assistant. Though she planned to be a psychology major, she took the job primarily because it paid. As she became more intrigued by social psychology— the study of the interactions and relationships between people—she gradually began to think more about science. She spent five months interviewing Mexican American and European American families in Phoenix to learn about differences in parenting style and values. It wasn’t basic science, but she learned a lot about how scientists approach different questions. “We had lab meetings, reviewed literature, and talked about how certain things would [influence] other things,” she says. “It was a good introduction to the research world.”
El-Ashmawy was inspired by the work, but her desire to answer the same kinds of “why and how” questions she asked as a child drew her to basic science research. The next semester, she joined Cheryl Conrad’s behavioral neuroscience lab at Arizona State. El-Ashmawy spent the rest of her undergraduate years in Conrad’s lab studying the effects of chronic stress on learning and memory in rats. She measured how stress affected the levels of different molecules that stimulate cellular growth in the brain. The day-to-day work included running rats through mazes and performing assays to measure the biochemical changes in the rats’ brains.
The summer after her junior year El-Ashmawy was accepted into HHMI's Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), which placed her with HHMI investigator Louis Ptáček at the University of California, San Francisco. In his lab, she studied cellular mechanisms underlying circadian rhythm, a daily pattern of waking and sleeping that governs the behavior of humans and many other species. Ptáček’s goal is to learn how the normal brain functions—during sleep, for example—and find out how disorders such as epilepsy and migraine headaches alter brain activity. The research experience solidified her interest in neuroscience. “There are so many different diseases and problems that can happen in the brain, and we know so little about them,” she says. “It’s overwhelming, but at the same time, it’s exciting.”
El-Ashmawy expresses gratitude to the National Institutes of Health-sponsored Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, which showed her the importance of giving back to the community both as a scientist and as a mentor. The program gives students the opportunity to get research experience, but also teaches them about the world of science. “We had weekly classes, and the director was a mentor for us. I know I couldn’t have accomplished half the things I’ve done without that support system,” she says.
Inspired by her own mentor, El-Ashmawy organized her fellow undergraduates to visit several nearby high schools to talk about scientific careers. She saw that the high school students faced problems just like her own. “Some voiced concerns that they weren’t smart enough, while others were apprehensive of their friends’ or parents’ reactions to science as a career choice,” she says. “It was beyond rewarding to share with these students not only my scientific successes and trials, but also my own personal concerns and struggles.”
After one presentation, El-Ashmawy was approached by a Mexican American high school student. The two struck up a conversation, and El-Ashmawy soon learned that the girl shared many of her interests and felt similar cultural burdens. El-Ashmawy provided emotional support and even helped the young woman land a summer job in a neuroscience lab.
Through her work with high school students and her experience in the lab, El-Ashmawy has come to the conclusion that diversity—both cultural and intellectual—leads to better science. “When you have a lot of different perspectives focused on the same problem, you’re going to get a better solution,” she says. “This process is enhanced if the people involved have a wider perspective because their life experiences may have been different because of their race, culture, gender, or otherwise.”
After El-Ashmawy graduated from Arizona State in 2008, she found herself pulled in competing directions. Though she still wanted to get an M.D., she was eager to do research. In the end, she enrolled in the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, where she plans to concentrate on neuroscience.
She acknowledges that her medical school peers are often incredulous that she wants to complete two different—but equally rigorous—degrees. But for El-Ashmawy, 22, the desire to connect science and medicine seems obvious. “So often in research, you’re focused on a single protein or animal model,” she says. “For me, it makes more sense to have a human element in your research.”