The Science and Technology Honors Program at UAB was designed to connect research-minded undergraduates with world-renowned researchers, offering students a head start on their careers and investigators a group of eager assistants. It’s a unique opportunity available nowhere else in Alabama—and as three current students explain, the idea has been an unqualified success.
MIND THE GAPS Basil Bakir is helping UAB psychiatric researchers explore the synaptic abnormalities underlying schizophrenia.
Taking a full load of classes, researching the physiological mechanisms of schizophrenia, and volunteering on a suicide hotline would be more than enough to keep any medical student busy. But Basil Bakir isn’t a doctor in training—at least, not yet. He’s still an undergraduate working on a degree in biomedical engineering (BME). The Montgomery native came to UAB primarily because of the BME program, which is the only one of its kind in the state. “I wanted to major in something that would give me exposure to the most basic sciences,” he says, and BME, which requires students to take a variety of basic biology and chemistry classes, fit the bill.
Bakir also knew that he wanted to pursue a long-standing interest in psychiatry, so he sought out practical opportunities to learn more about patient care and research in the field. Three nights per month, for five hours at a time, Bakir answers calls at Birmingham’s Crisis Center hotline and counsels patients with chronic conditions. This work has given him an idea of the wide range of psychiatric problems, he says, “and showed me that I really enjoy interacting with people.”
Bakir also spends up to 40 hours a week in UAB research labs, helping psychiatry chair James Meador-Woodruff, M.D., and faculty member Robert McCullumsmith, M.D., Ph.D., find synaptic abnormalities that may underlie the debilitating symptoms of schizophrenia. The researchers are focusing on the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is underactive in the brains of people with schizophrenia, says Bakir. “No one knows why this is the case, and labs like ours are trying to figure out why.” Collaborating with McCullumsmith, Bakir is comparing glutamate receptor levels in postmortem samples from healthy and schizophrenic brains. He notes that it is hard to count receptor levels directly; instead, he uses fluorescent biomarkers to measure levels of protein and messenger RNA in the samples.
Bakir’s work is attracting attention far beyond Birmingham. He has presented his findings at the Society for Neuroscience and the Alabama Academy of Sciences, and he is the primary author on a paper currently under review for publication.
It is unusual for an undergraduate to get so much practical research exposure, and Bakir credits the Science and Technology Honors Program—especially director Diane Tucker, Ph.D., and her assistant, Michele Gould—for giving him the opportunity. “It’s something I wanted to do as a freshman, but without Sci-Tech I don’t know if I would have had the courage to go out, find a lab on my own, and take on that responsibility,” he says.
Now, as a senior, Bakir says his combination of research and counseling experience has confirmed and strengthened his determination to pursue a career in mental health. “Working at the Crisis Center hotline and working in a psychiatry lab are really just two sides of the same coin to me.”