For our second episode of 2022, I spoke with Dr Sabah Ul-Hasan, a bioinformatics postdoctoral scholar and lecturer at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. We begin our conversation by exploring their first moments of fascination with science, and in particular, with wildlife biology. We then discuss their academic trajectory, starting from the University of Utah for their Bachelor’s, then onto the University of New Hampshire for their Master’s, after which they completed their PhD at the University of California, Merced. As co-founder of The Biota Project, they aim to intersect science education, outreach, and environmental justice to foster science and data literacy. The running thread of our conversation was undoubtedly community—the Muslim and LGBTQIA+ communities that offer them a sense of belonging, and the underserved communities they wish to access and serve through their work. As such, this episode is titled ‘Community’.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Sabah Ul-Hasan: Remember that you are not your job, your personality is different from your job and enjoy your life, especially while you have it. Whatever opportunities you have to enjoy your life, do those things!
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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we will be chatting with Dr Sabah Ul-Hasan, a postdoctoral scholar and lecturer at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. They completed their Bachelor's in Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental and Sustainability Studies at the University of Utah, followed by a Master's in Biochemistry at the University of New Hampshire, and a PhD in Quantitative and Systems Biology at the University of California, Merced. I'm so excited <chuckle> to chat with Dr Ul-Hasan about science, identity, and intersectionality, but let's start from the very beginning—Dr Ul-Hasan, what's your story?
SU-H: I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah to two immigrant parents, one from India, one from Pakistan, and me and my brother, we kind of grew up in this area that was near the smelly part of Salt Lake. I think there's actually a lot of push right now happening for people to maybe save the Great Salt Lake, but at that time, people didn't really care about it, [and] this was in the nineties.
I didn't really see myself in the sciences. I think, like a lot of kids of immigrant parents, I was encouraged to be a medical doctor or a lawyer, and I just didn't see those [jobs] for me. I really did like science and biology. We didn't have pets or anything growing up, but I used to keep insects! So, I would keep them for a week or something and then I would let them go.
AB: That's cool!
SU-H: Yeah! So, I think that curiosity was there and that with then learning about this ecosystem that lived right next to me, those two things, I think, is what kind of drew me towards biology and wildlife biology. And now, I do a bunch of stuff, or I have done a bunch of stuff over that time, but that's where it started!
AB: Could you tell me a little bit more about the work that you're doing now? You had quite a few jumps from different locations and I'd love to hear more about how that story also transpired, but we can start now and then move backwards.
SU-H: Yeah! So, as you mentioned, I am at Scripps Research, at the California campus, and it's a wonderful place. This is now the start of my third year as a postdoctoral scholar... mainly postdoctoral scholar, and I also teach some workshops and an applied bioinformatics course. I was looking for positions a year before my PhD, because I'm just high anxiety like that <chuckle> and I was like, 'I need a plan!' And so, I was looking, and I was talking to people, and everyone was great. There were some really great collaborators that I was working with. But then, I just decided, you know, 'Maybe I'm missing something. Maybe there's a place that is not on my radar and I need to check it out.' That's how I found where I'm at now; I just kind of did something where I'm like, 'This is a little tacky, but I'm just gonna do it!' I posted on Twitter and I was like, 'Here's my CV. I'm looking at stuff. If there's anyone [who] knows anybody or if you'd like to have me, let me know.' And that was where my current PI, Dr Andrew Su and also Dr Dawn Eastmond, who's with the grad office... Well, Andrew reached out to me and then that's how I started a conversation with both of them, and I have loved it ever since.
I work on Wikidata and Wikidata is basically the structured, like, think Excel spreadsheet version of Wikipedia, and Wikipedia is the Word doc. And so, I'm working on the biomedical aspect where I work with a group of people through the Gene Wiki Project and we integrate and then automate data integration from very specialized databases, like ClinGen, ClinVar are some examples, and those are mainly focused on relationships between genes and diseases in humans, so any mutations in genes and how those might be associated with disease and any sort of medications that are involved in treating those. So, that whole set of pathways, that's kind of what I do, curating that into Wikidata.
What got me into wanting to do this is, I think it's just always been on my radar my family's level of access, or lack of access, I should say, and that contrast to being in academia and a lot of people, a lot of peers coming from more affluent backgrounds—and there's nothing wrong with that—it's just I think sometimes people are disconnected from what the average person might be experiencing or how little they really have access to a lot of this kind of information.
When I was doing my PhD, one of my dissertation chapters involved data that was over a hundred years old, and it kind of got me thinking about, 'How can I make sure that my science is 1) available 10, 15 years from now, or even readable for people 10 to 15 years from now?' And also accessible in terms of being able to look at it—kind of open source is what people call it, open access—and so that's what brought me to this position and [I] just enjoy being part of a community that genuinely is interested in accessibility of data for the public. And the public can also edit it just like with Wikipedia!
Anyways, that's what I do. We have some kind of machine learning algorithms that we work on in the group and we kind of put those towards tools and resources, and the one that I'm working on was done previously by a grad student, so I'm working on reproducing that and automating it to basically use Wikidata as a source for information to then identify potential candidates for drug repurposing for clinical researchers to then screen and test.
AB: What meaningful work you're doing! And I like that you're thinking far ahead about the readability of the work that you're doing and the accessibility of the work that you're doing. Those two things are very important to me as an individual, so kudos to you for that! How similar is the work that you're doing now to the work you did for your PhD? Was it a jump, and what was that jump like if there was one?
SU-H: I did venom microbiomes for my PhD with marine snails or venomous marine snails. I was really interested in host micro-interactions at the time. And I think another theme across was I've always been interested in community research or research that relates or is connected the community in some way. [For] that research, I worked a lot with people in Baja, Mexico. I was very highly collaborative and my research now is highly collaborative, and I really enjoy that. I'm not really tied to this whole [idea] of having that paper where I'm the only author, there's like two or three authors. For me, I'm just like, 'Okay, if somebody was involved in some way, in an intellectual way, they can be on the paper; doesn't matter to me.'
Science is meant to be a community and highly collaborative. But I guess what led me to this... so me being me initially, we started with just really being interested in understanding what the microbiome was of the venom, just to figure out what kind of microbial biodiversity there was in venom. There wasn't a lot of information on that, and also what they might be doing in the venom, if they're symbiotic, if they're positively or mutually contributing or negatively contributing in a parasitic way, or a combination. And so, that was kind of where it started. Then we were looking along to California Baja coast, and when you think about it, LA (Los Angeles) is one of the biggest cities in the world and California is relatively new in terms of, I guess, colonized population, and so you have millions of people [now], whereas a 100-200 years ago, it was very few. You know, [with] the whole Settlers Manifest Destiny thing, California got super populated after that.
Anyways, cutting back full circle: with that data, that was the chapter that was working with over a hundred-year-old data, because we were wanting to look at sea surface temperature to see how much there was variability of the shell shape and size by sea surface temperature, and kind of connecting that to climate change, as well as human population density. And we can't say too much in detail because it's really difficult to actually extrapolate on that information or try to really figure out the details of those results.
It's really what got me thinking about data a lot more. In some ways it's seems really mundane or really boring to just be somebody that kind of curates data, but it's really important because think about [it]: any scientist usually works from previous data, whether it's previous experiments or previous data in a database, and so I really wanted to be someone that could contribute to data that could be done well for a long time.
AB: Mmmn. You mentioned the word collaboration and that got me thinking about another project that you're a part of, The Biota Project. What are the projects missions and what are you doing now?
SU-H: Yeah! I'm so proud of what has happened with that, and not because of me, [but] because of all the people who were excited about it, and now it's mainly been taken on by Daniela Zarate now. She's a PhD student at UC San Diego who's wrapping up, but it's started with me and my friend, J—who also goes by Lux—Abubo, and we both grew up in that area that I mentioned before, in Salt Lake. That area is called Rose Park/Glendale, which now being gentrified! But J is Filipina and I'm South-Asian and both our parents [are] immigrants and you know, there's just a lot of context.
J did a lot of stuff with film. I was really interested in doing film-making. And I think this was, like, 2014—we'd have these hour-long conversations. She/they is one of best friends, and at that time, these conversations about having more inclusive spaces or better representation in STEM, especially STEM education and SciComm, weren't as common. Twitter was just starting at that time, for example. So, we were talking a lot about Bill Nye, and we were just like, 'How come Bill Nye, Jeff Corwin, like, all these science documentary people... all of these are, like, white guys—why? How come?’ And we were talking [about how] we both went to the University of Utah and we were thinking about how there wasn't a lot of education or outreach at the neighborhood where we were; there weren't really a lot of scientists coming over to [the] Glendale/Rose Park area.
So, I was living on the East Coast at the time; I was living in the third whitest state in the country, New Hampshire, per capita. So, Maine, Vermont, then New Hampshire. I don't know if those stats are still true, but at that time it was. I was lucky enough during my undergrad [that] I worked in a lab where the PI was Filipino—shout out to Baldomero Olivera Lab—and the person that I worked under was Indian, and I didn't realize how uncommon that was, because my first main experiences being in research was just being in a very international lab that was mostly non-white, and the PI was non-white. That was my intro, and it was awesome! And so, I didn't really feel different until I lived on the East Coast, and I was the only non-white person in the group, besides one Japanese grad student who was international, and we were definitely friends.
It is just weird, you know? I just wanna say—and I'm sure you can attest to this too—it's like, you don't want to see those patterns, you don't want to see patterns where people are being prejudiced. If anything, I was, for a long time, [thinking], 'Something is wrong with me. I'm experiencing this because something is wrong with me.' And then, finally being like, 'No, this is prejudice!' And so, coming back to the original question of why the Biota Project—it originally started the science documentary series between me and J, and then it kind of evolved from there. The intention was just, 'We're kind of tired of trying to fit into the space where we're not even welcomed and we wanna make a space for people to just be who they are and to be themselves. And that can also be science and that can be science education.' That was the intention.
It's mainly a science education group organization through an environmental justice lens, and the intention has always been to be non-hierarchical, so there's no formalized leadership. Their current theme for this next couple of months is food, so they've been doing a lot of stuff on urban foraging. They just had a clip out; I can send the YouTube link to their channel. They're just awesome, so I'm really happy. And the focus, again, is on communities and scientists who want to be talking to the communities that they're a part of, and really not seeing that kind of communication as less than, or extra or whatever, but a direct part of improving the way we do science.
AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. It is a great lead into the next question that I have for you about identity and about being Muslim. Is there a bright side? <Laugh> The community aspect, maybe? I don't know. I don't want to put words in your mouth! <Laugh>
SU-H: The bright side is definitely, like, you've reached out to me and I was just like, 'Yes! A Muslim scientist, this is great!'
I feel like it's similar maybe in the queer community too, and of course there's overlap between those two, where it's almost like you see someone's name or you see someone wearing hijab, for example, and you're just feel excited <laugh> but you also don't wanna be weird about it, so you're just like, 'Do I say Salam to them? Are they gonna be weird? Maybe they're gonna be more religious than me, or I'm gonna be more religious than them...' You're trying to kind of feel out the situation. And then finally, when you open the box, then you're like, 'Oh my gosh. Do you want to do Eid sometime? Maybe Ramadan, Iftar together?’ Just to have that support... I told you already I have a WhatsApp chat with some friends and I gotta add you to that! It's really nice. Just to have that venting space. And then there's just [the] feeling of community and just... I don't know, it's just a genuine connection. And I think that's actually the thing I really love about being Muslim. I don't know what your experience was like growing up as Muslim. For me, in Salt Lake, one pro I would say to being in Salt Lake is, at the time—now, I think there's a few masjids [mosques], so it's a little more separated now, unfortunately, or cliquey now... maybe cliquey is not the best word...
AB: I think it's a great word! <laugh>
SU-H: <laugh> But at the time growing up in Salt Lake, there was really just one masjid, and I think the pro to that was, you know, I would be praying next to Bosnians, Somalians, Egyptians, Arabs, very multicultural, and that was just normal. And [as] I grew up, my friends' parents or their families were refugees that had to flee, and my parents, you know, we would just go to their house and hang out with them, and I didn't know the difference. Like, that didn't register in my mind, and I think that's a good thing. I didn't see someone that differently than me, as someone being born in the US and having that privilege. And I think that's something Islam really has helped me maintain, that humility and sense of community. You know, we all sit on the floor, we all sit next to each other, even if you don't know somebody, you're praying next to them, shoulder to shoulder, so Shaitan doesn't come in the way! Just having that sense of support, and people are, I think, really professional and really formal about it too.
The positive side to all of that is you meet other people and you're just like, 'Hey!' You're just like a little family and that's great.
AB: Yeah! To answer your question, I think it was a little bit of the reverse for me, because I was based in Toronto for such a long time, and there are so many Muslims there that it is very cliquey. It is very, 'That is a mosque for just people who are from this area. And this is another mosque. If you go here, you're kind of crossing between territories.' If you're affiliated with one mosque, then you feel like you're, I dunno, turning your back on them if you go for Taraweeh at another mosque <laugh>
SU-H: I know! I think it is like that in Salt Lake now, unfortunately.
AB/SU-H (simultaneously): Yeah!
AB: And it does get messy and unfortunately, because of those cliquey tendencies, by the time I got to grad school, I was really timid! You know that feeling of...
SU-H: Who to talk to...
AB: Yeah! 'Do they feel cool with me and am I as religious as that person or do they think I'm too religious?'.
SU-H: The judgment!
AB/SU-H (simultaneously): Yes!
AB: And that is so ever-present and you're always a little afraid of it, but so often it's gone positively for me that I'm trying to actively erase that feeling.
SU-H: Yeah! I was the president of the Muslim Students Association when I was living on the East Coast and that judgment! I mean, it's so real, like, 'Am I Muslim enough? They're more Muslim than me.' Like, my mom wears hijab, for example, and I've kind of done it on and off... Just the way people are and the assumptions they make when you are wearing hijab and how religious you are or not religious you are, and it's so ironic because we all know that Islam is supposed to be about humility and not judging others. Only Allah [God] can judge you. And yet there is so much judgment. It's just like, 'Wait a second!' <Laugh> 'What are we doing?'
AB: It does not make sense sometimes. I wanted to add on the other element of your intersectional identity, if possible, if you're comfortable talking about it, of course.
AB: What has been your experience, both in the academic space and also in the Muslim community of being non-binary? I know that some people are a little trepidatious about it and other people are super welcoming, but what has been your experience?
SU-H: Yeah, I mean, I'll just give my own personal comments of why I identify as non-binary or they/them. For me, it really came from a place of I already identified as queer, and I really noticed I have to make an active effort to not genderize language when I'm talking about people. And so, for me, I think we do have a lot of biases that we don't think about. Just try it as an exercise, the next time you have a conversation with anybody, instead of using he or she, replace it with they, and just think about how that might... Like, just reflect on that after that five-minute conversation or so, of how you might be thinking of that person differently.
People sometimes will accidentally say 'she,' and they'll be like, 'Oh, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.' And, for me personally, I don't really mind if I know you in a close way. In a professional setting, I think it's important, so anytime somebody intros me or, you know, referencing me in an interview or something, I think it's very important. But if somebody just, you know, kind of slips up by accident, but I can tell they're trying, yeah, it's okay. It happens, you know, but I know that's just something for me personally, because my life overall, you know, my life is overall unchanged, I would say.
That's just to say comparatively to being Muslim—and everyone has a different experience, but for me personally—I think being queer, I still can be pretty cis passing, and so my life's fairly unchanged or unfazed. I think for me, I'm more focused on supporting people whose lives I know are very impacted by their queer identities and kind of making more space for them, and just having me be part of that space, but maybe not taking it up so much. So that's the stuff I try to think about. But yeah, I don't know. That was a long answer to your question! <Laugh>
AB: I think it's a great answer because it leads me to the final question of this conversation, and I'm a little sad that this conversation is ending because you're a great person to talk to!
SU-H: Oh, I feel like I've just been giving a monologue! <Laugh>
AB: It's great for me. It means I don't have to do any work.
SU-H: You have a very good calming voice.
AB: Oh, thank you! I appreciate that a lot. <Laugh> If you were to go back, let's say 10-15 years, would you do anything differently? And if so, what would you do differently?
SU-H: Yeah, that's a great question. I think if I were to do it again <laugh> and people might get upset with me for this answer, but this is my honest answer! If I were to do it again, I think I'd probably just go to vocational school. I would've just gone to trade school or vocational school and gotten really good at something, like be an electrician or plumber or something, and just do that for 10 years. But also on the flip side, if you are wanting to do something in higher education, like be a medical doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, or what have you, if I were to just stay in this profession again, which personally just speaking frankly, I love doing science. I will always love doing science. I'm always curious, but I also feel very comfortable walking away from my job at any time and just doing something totally different. And that's not to say... Like, I love my job. I love this job. It's a great job. I love what I do. I'm very grateful, and it took a lot of work to get here, but I think it's also important to remember to enjoy life while we have it, especially while we're able.
One of my parents just had surgery and you know, you're just starting to see parents getting older, seeing people pass away and age, and it's important to remember just how lucky we are to be able to wake up and move around to whatever extent we can, to do things to think freely. A lot of people don't have that luxury, especially people that are in camps and, you know, that's something I think is on the radar of every Muslim worldwide. Always thinking about them, just how lucky I am to just walk around wherever and just have that kind of access.
I guess if I were to do it again, I would go back and, first of all, just remember that you are not your job, your personality is different from your job and enjoy your life, especially while you have it. Whatever opportunities you have to enjoy your life, make the most of it, do those things. Don't go too crazy, but you have a lot of opportunity. And I think because my parents are immigrants, I didn't think about that a lot, plus being Muslim, I think. And then the other thing is I would've taken breaks. I kind of went directly one after another, and Asma, you were also saying a little bit how you did a little bit of that, and it just gets really tiring.
I took a break kind of between my Master's and my PhD, but it just gets really tiring. If you are going between an undergrad or a Master's and PhD, work for a little bit, work to make a little money and heal from your burnout <laugh> and just have some fun, honestly! School will always be there, and so if you need your degree for something, like a training type of thing, where your job is going to be a much better pay grade, get that. But if you feel happy with your job, if you feel happy with what you want to do and you don't necessarily need a degree to do that, then don't worry about it. I think if you can do what you want to do without school, do that, if you need school to do that, do that.
I think that’s what I would've done a little differently, and more breaks in between.
AB: I love that. I don't think I've actually gotten that answer before, And that's a great thing because... I don't know if you feel the same way, but there are times I feel like within the academic space, there's a lot of ego and elitism and, 'Oh, I'm better because I did this.' I think by saying that, a lot of people might disagree with you only because it attacks at their own fragile ego <laugh>, you know, and that's probably the only reason why.
SU-H: Yeah! There's a great clip by George Washington, Carver, a recorded interview with him. I can send the YouTube link for that too, if you want.
AB: Yes, please!
SU-H: But it's just about how the best science is done in the absence of ego and he makes this comment where he's like, 'It's a terrible thing, that 'I' disease,' and it's just really great. I think about that all the time. I think it's so true. And again, when you start looking at your science from the perspective of, I could leave this tomorrow, at least from my personal perspective... again, whatever people want to do, that's great. I personally think it's kind of bad to think of doing science from a perspective of leaving a legacy.
I have one mentor in particular who was one of the people I worked for who's now retired and he told me too, 'Just have fun!' And he was one of those people that was always working until 6:00 or 7:00 and he really enjoyed it. He didn't have kids, him and his wife. They worked and they had a good time doing their individual jobs. And he, I think, just really enjoyed working and working in the lab, but he was telling me, 'Yeah, just have fun. Just enjoy.' And I think genuinely every day he was just going to lab because he was just having a good time. If you're not having a good time, it’s not lighting a fire in you, or maybe the fire is coming from a place of, 'I wanna get the Nobel Prize!' ... For me personally, I think really good science is done when people are just enjoying it. They have some thoughts in mind of how they want to help people in the process.
AB: Spot on! Thank you so, so much, Dr Sabah Ul-Hasan. It's such a pleasure to have met you. Thank you.
SU-H: Likewise. Yes! We're both doctors, Masha Allah! Thank you so much, Dr Bashir.
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