NYU School of Medicine Investigator Yusuff Abdu Named Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Student Research Fellow

HHMI International Student Research Fellowships are Designed to Facilitate the Training of Outstanding International Predoctoral Students in Biomedical and Related Sciences

Yusuff Abdu, graduate assistant in the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at NYU School of Medicine, was today named a 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) International Student Research Fellow. Abdu will receive $43,000 a year for years three, four and five of his PhD program, to support his research on germ cell development to understand how cells regulate changes in their shape and size to function properly.

“We are extremely proud of all of our talented students who demonstrate early on in their careers their dedication to advancing human health,” said Steven Abramson, MD, senior vice president and vice dean for education, faculty and academic affairs, and chair of the Department of Medicine. “On behalf of the entire NYU School of Medicine community, I congratulate Yusuff for receiving this important fellowship.”

Abdu was born and raised in Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria. He and his three elder siblings were raised by his mother, a single parent and a photojournalist during the 80's and early 90's, an unusual occupation for a Nigerian woman at the time. “She inspired us in ways I doubt she knows,” said Abdu.

According to Abdu, like most Nigerians, he grew up on the beliefs of African mysticism and its power to cure diseases and ailments. At the time he was fascinated by the process and wanted to know how the mystical mechanisms were interacting with the disease-causing agents in the human body. He decided he would spend his lifetime dedicated to the biological sciences when he realized that no such mechanisms existed in these rituals.

“Being awarded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Student Research Fellowship has provided me with resources and opportunities that were previously out of my reach,” said Abdu. “This recognition has given my project additional momentum. Now, I can focus on my studies, unburdened and confident.”

Abdu studies a novel mechanism that regulates changes in cell shape and size using the embryo of the non-parasitic roundworm C. elegans. Throughout life different cell types must acquire and maintain their distinct cell shape and size in order to properly function. Failure to do so has been associated with a number of disorders, including cancer. The cell shape changes he studies occur in the earlier stages of germ cell development. Eventually these cells will become sperm and egg, and the changes in their shape during this time appear to influence their development.

Abdu added, “NYU School of Medicine is such a supportive community where I am challenged intellectually daily by my research advisor, Dr. Jeremy Nance, and many others. I dream to one day match the enthusiasm he has for science, and when I am done with my studies, I hope to remain in basic science research as a lab head and to find creative avenues to promote science education.”

Abdu is one of only 42 international student research fellows who were selected from nearly 400 students who were nominated and applied. Only institutions currently hosting at least one HHMI investigator or those that are recipients of a current HHMI graduate training grant could nominate candidates and host fellows. The HHMI is a nonprofit medical research organization that assists aspiring international physician-scientists enrolled in graduate school in the United States.

HHMI established the fellowships in 2011, and is now supporting 140 students from 35 countries. The Institute created the program because it recognized a problem: international students in U.S. graduate schools often have difficulty getting funding to support their studies. For example, they are not eligible for federal fellowships or training grant support, or other governmental opportunities that are generally reserved for U.S. citizens. The HHMI chose to fund the third to fifth years of graduate school, the most critical years of PhD work, because by this time most students have chosen a graduate advisor, identified a research project, and demonstrated their potential for success in the lab.