A Syrian immigrant developing methods to address diabetic eye disease and an aspiring public health physician-scientist from Skokie are the latest University of Illinois at Chicago undergraduate researchers to earn a prestigious Goldwater scholarship based on their academic merit in the field of science.
Anis Barmada, a junior in biological sciences and chemistry, and Wasan Kumar, a sophomore in neuroscience, are among 496 scholars selected from a nationally competitive field of 1,223 mathematics, science and engineering students nominated by their colleges and universities.
The Goldwater scholarship, which is named for the late Republican senator from Arizona and presented by the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, will cover up to $7,500 in tuition, books and related fees during the 2019-20 academic year for Barmada and Kumar, who are both UIC Honors College members.
Anis Barmada lived in war-torn Syria for nearly five years before he and his family immigrated to the U.S. in September 2015.
After graduating from Wheeling High School in 2016, the current resident of Mount Prospect came to UIC, where he is part of the President’s Award Program STEM Initiative, which is a selective peer and faculty network for students in STEM disciplines to do research, develop professional connections and prepare for graduate education.
Barmada has been conducting research since his freshman year to develop a noninvasive biomarker assay for diabetic eye disease in the laboratory of Scott Shippy, UIC associate professor of chemistry and bioengineering. The work resulted in a published paper on which Barmada is the first author.
“I developed a method to analyze mouse tear fluid, which plays a blood-like role at the cornea and can reflect disease conditions, and performed the first small molecule analysis of this fluid,” he said.
Since the paper, Barmada has further evaluated the method and employed it to study the mouse diabetic cornea as part of his Honors Capstone project and is first-author on another paper that will be submitted for publication soon. He also conducted a year of theoretical mathematics research that introduced him to Python programming, computational analysis and algorithm design.
His studies have been supported by Liberal Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Initiative and Honors College research grants, the chemistry department’s Herbert E. Paaren Summer Research Stipend, and other local scholarships and awards.
His future goals include earning a medical degree and Ph.D. in biochemistry for a career as a physician-scientist focused on combating currently incurable diseases.
Barmada credits his life and educational experiences for shaping his work ethic, skills to adapt and positive thinking.
“Finding order in my disordered life experiences gave me precious lessons that schools cannot teach,” Barmada said. “What keeps me motivated in my research is that although I do not know if there is a cure for every disease, I know we simply must work hard to find it.”
Wasan Kumar has conducted research on the effects of heavy metals in promoting cardiovascular diseases in the laboratory of Dr. Andre Kajdacsy-Balla, professor of pathology in the UIC College of Medicine.
He already has presented findings from these investigations at six conferences — four national and two internal — and submitted two manuscripts for review.
“My research looks specifically at the influence of cadmium on increasing the uptake of lipids by macrophage cells in vitro, which is a crucial first step in the progression of atherosclerosis,” said Kumar, who has received grants from the Liberal Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Initiative and the Honors College. “Developing projects like this from start to finish has taken a lot of work but has really energized me towards pursuing research.”
A research area of personal relevance to Kumar is the disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular diseases in South Asian populations. He has sought to better understand this matter as president-elect of the Indian Students Association and as a Global Asian Studies minor.
“This project has allowed me to collaborate with a number of UIC departments and researchers, as well as abroad with researchers in India,” he said.
His future academic goals are to earn a medical degree with a focus in molecular pathology and a Ph.D. in epidemiology, which he will combine to establish a career as a physician-scientist devoted to improving public health.
“My specific research interest is to understand the disease model through a macroscopic population-based lens while considering heterogeneity between individuals at the molecular level,” he said. “This will help tackle a variety of health disparities.”
Kumar, a 2017 graduate of the Illinois Math and Science Academy, also is a health educator and leadership council member for the Peer Health Exchange, a nonprofit organization that teaches health education to inner-city high school freshmen.
His university honors include the Chancellor’s Service and Leadership Award and the Maurice Prize, an undergraduate innovation competition.
UIC’s Office of External Fellowships provides advising and assistance to current undergraduate and professional school students in finding and applying for a range of nationally and internationally competitive fellowships, scholarships and grants.