Syeda Fatima, a junior biology major, is a recipient of the highly competitive NIH Undergraduate Scholarship Program. Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing.

‘I never imagined to be where I am today’: VCU student selected for prestigious NIH scholarship

VCU student Syeda Fatima immigrated to the U.S. four years ago. She’s now a recipient of the highly competitive NIH Undergraduate Scholarship Program.

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Syeda Fatima came to the United States from Pakistan in late 2016 and enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College before transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University. Now Fatima has been named the recipient of a prestigious scholarship from the National Institutes of Health.

“A lot of people have told me they had preconceived notions of community college and immigrant students but I have time and again proved them wrong, and will continue to,” said Fatima, a junior biology major and chemistry minor in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Fatima was selected to take part in the NIH Undergraduate Scholarship Program, which provides $20,000 and a guaranteed summer research position at the NIH, as well as a paid post-baccalaureate training position at the NIH.

“I am excited and grateful to receive this scholarship,” she said. “I never imagined to be where I am today.”

Fatima is one of two VCU students this year to receive the highly competitive national scholarship, and she is the fourth VCU student in four years to receive it. This year’s other recipient is Anirban Mahanty, a junior biology major.

Fatima interned at the NIH in summer 2019, working in a lab focused on liver disease. Her project was to study the effects of oxidative stress on lipid accumulation in liver cells to investigate the pathophysiology of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

She originally wanted to eventually become a physician, but her experience at the NIH last summer stirred an interest in pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D.

“NIH is the best place to be at for a student like me who wants to become a part of the amazing medical community that is actively working to enhance the health of human beings,” she said. “I am especially interested in metabolic diseases and I want to make medicine more approachable for underprivileged communities.”

As part of her internship at the NIH, Fatima plans to focus more on the clinical side of medical research, with a particular focus on obesity.

Fatima said she is interested in exploring the complex relationship between metabolism and food.

“I have noticed that there is not enough emphasis on the root cause of diseases like cancer, strokes and heart attacks – most of the diseases that are leading cause of death,” she said. “All these diseases have strong association with excess fat in the body, and if you go to a physician, they will invest more time on treating the problem itself and there is not enough guidance about the lifestyle changes to treat obesity.”

Growing up in Pakistan, she said she witnessed a sizable communication gap between physicians and less-educated patients. One day she hopes to help solve that problem.

“I want to become a physician who communicates with patients effectively,” she said. “Medicine and research is not something that my community appreciates and understands enough and I would like them to by going back and doing something about it. It’s the ultimate opportunity to make a difference.”

In addition to her interests in medicine and research, Fatima is also passionate about teaching. She served as a tutor at Northern Virginia Community College and at Mathnasium, and will be a teaching assistant this year in an organic chemistry course taught by Suzanne Ruder, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Chemistry and a mentor of Fatima’s.

Fatima thanked Ruder, as well as her additional mentors, Yaron Rotman, M.D., and Maren Podszun, Ph.D., at the NIH, and Waqar Kazmi, Ph.D., a VCU alumnus who teaches biology at Northern Virginia Community College.

“It [also] wouldn't be possible without my family,” she said. “I would like to say this to all students: No matter where you come from and no matter what people tell you, do not stop believing in your dreams and do not hesitate to work hard.”