Speaking with Dr Aya Osman for our latest episode was an absolute joy! Dr Osman is a behavioral neuroscientist, science communicator, professional fashion model, and postdoctoral fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. During our conversation, Dr Osman shares her family’s journey from Sudan to Saudi Arabia—where she was born—and onto England, also reflecting on her experiences as an undergraduate student and graduate trainee at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL) and the University of Surrey, respectively. We go on to discuss her impactful research on the gut microbiome in neuropsychiatric disorders at the Seaver Autism Center at Mount Sinai, working under the supervision of Dr Drew Kiraly. In the concluding moments of our conversation, we discuss the powerful words she lives by, speaking about the value of finding one’s purpose in life. Dr Osman and I hope you enjoy our conversation, aptly titled ‘Purpose’.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Aya Osman: The main thing that I keep in mind when I'm working or when I'm getting out of bed in the morning is doing something for the greater good of the world. Trying to find the reason why you do most things will keep you engaged and keep you passionate.
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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 Aya Osman, a postdoctoral researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She previously completed her Bachelor's in Biomedical Science in at Royal Holloway University, followed by her MSc in Toxicology at the University of Surrey, and her PhD in Neuropharmacology, also at the University of Surrey. I am so excited to chat with Dr Osman today about her research on the role of the gut microbiome in neuropsychiatric disorders, her work as a professional fashion model, and SciCommer on social media, but let's start from the very beginning—Dr Osman, what's your story?
AO: Hello there, and thank you so much, Dr Bashir, for having me on this wonderful platform. My story starts back in Saudi Arabia actually, where I was born. My parents are of Sudanese origin, but I never actually spent any time there. They moved out of Sudan very early in the 1980s, [and] moved over to Saudi Arabia, which is actually a very natural progression for a lot of Sudanese people. And so, I was born in Saudi Arabia in 1988 in Jeddah, and spent the first seven years of my life there. We then decided to move from Saudi Arabia to the UK, mainly because some of my older brothers were reaching university age, and I don't think a lot of people know this, but in the Middle East and particularly in Saudi Arabia, you can't actually attend university there unless you're of Saudi blood, so because we were immigrants, my dad knew that he would have to send each of us to university [in] different parts of the world, and he didn't really wanna break up the family that way. For educational purposes, we decided that the UK was probably the best natural next step for us, so [I] attended primary school and high school there.
Honestly, it was really during high school that my interest in science really started to show. It was the only subject I was getting good grades in consistently, and I was enjoying it! I found myself really enjoying learning about the molecular processes that underlie disease and health.
The UK system is obviously quite different to the US system. At the end of high school, at the age of 16, you decide on four topics that you want to study: this is for A-levels. I decided to study Biology, Chemistry, English, and also Geography, [but] I dropped Geography after a year, so I ended up with three subjects: Biology, Chemistry, English. When it came to applying for undergraduate degrees, being of African/Middle Eastern origin, you have only two options <laugh>: engineering, as you probably well know, or medicine. I wanted to go for medicine, but unfortunately my grades were not strong enough at that point, and looking back on it now, I realize I was always very studious, but the environment wasn't the best at the time. There was a lot of struggles—my dad didn't really do too well in the UK and he ended up moving back—so our family ended up getting broken up either way, which is what we were trying to avoid.
Long story short, I didn't have the grades to get into medicine, and decided to do a biomedical degree, which would cover many of the basics of biology, physiology, and biochemistry. I did that at Royal Holloway, as you mentioned, for three years, [and] graduated at the end of the three years. We do something called the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) in the UK; I sat the MCAT and I didn't think I would get a good sco, and the MCAT kind of guarantees you interviews. Thinking I didn't do too well, I didn't bother applying for interviews, and then I got my MCAT results back and I did actually get a score that would've guaranteed me some interviews. That was a shame, but I kind of set my medical degree dreams aside then and decided, 'You know what? Let me do a Master's. Let me try and specialize a bit more in an aspect of biology before deciding what I want to do long-term.'
I embarked on a Master's at Surrey University in the topic of Toxicology. I would honestly say the Master's was probably one of the funnest periods of my life, because it was one year and you got to focus on quite a small niche of topics for that one year, as opposed to your undergraduate, which as you know, is a lot of topics that you might not find interesting. One of the modules of my Master's was neuropharmacology and in particular, the lecture that really stuck out to me was [on] drugs of abuse, because obviously they are considered toxins. Looking at cocaine, for example, as a toxin that enters your body and dysregulates the reward system in your brain, which then leads to the addiction cycle developing, was so fascinating to me.
We also covered other psychiatric conditions, from schizophrenia [to] autism, but I graduated from my Master's and I realized that was really where my passion and my interests were sparked. I left my Master's and I ended up working for a governmental body called Public Health England for two years, and I just couldn't get the research out of my head! <Laugh> It really left a mark on me. I was like, 'That was fascinating!' You know, I woke up every day with a sense of purpose and excitement, and I wanted to feel that again, so I left my governmental job—very well paid job, governmental email address, pension, the whole works—and I emailed my Master's supervisor, and I just expressed my interest. I kept emailing him saying, 'Let me know if there's a PhD opportunity that comes across your desk that you think I might be eligible for.' In the end, it boiled down to me and another candidate. I think the people in the lab—because they'd known me during my Master's—put in a good word for me, so I ended up being selected over the other guy. It was one of the best days of my life when I got the acceptance email! First thing I did was email my job, like, 'Hey, I love you all, but I have to leave!' <Chuckle> And yeah, my PhD was back at Surrey University and started that in 2013, I want to say. Yeah, 2018 is when I graduated and got my degree.
My [PhD] supervisor had trained in the US, he trained at Rockefeller under Mary Jeanne Kreek—I don't know if you're familiar with her; she's the woman who discovered methadone [and] methadone is the supplement or the replacement therapy for opioid addiction—so he trained in the US and he came back from the US to the UK, and he didn't actually have the best experience. He thought it was great for his career, but he told me, you know, 'It's really competitive.' And he had his wife back in the UK, so he had a reason to move back, whereas I was single, you know? Other than my family and my siblings, I didn't really have a partner or anything anchoring me to the UK. He recommended a lab for me here at Icahn School of Medicine. I interviewed with the lab over Skype and [since] I'd never been to the US at this point, I asked to come here for a week for the [in-person] interview. I had to give a job talk. After my job talk, a few labs were interested and one of them happened to be a lab that studied the gut microbiome in addiction and other psychiatric conditions, and because my PhD touched on the gut microbiome and the link to the brain, it seemed like a more natural fit than the lab that had flown me over. They made the offer. I had to go back to the UK for, I think, it was three or four months. I just felt like I was in limbo that whole time, just itching to get back to New York!
AB: <Laugh> I can imagine!
AO: Submitted my thesis, defended it, packed my suitcase—two suitcases, may I add—and moved here to start my postdoc! And that's where I am currently.
AB: That's lovely! There are so many topics that I would love to jump off of. I do wanna talk about your research in just a second, but before that, I want to touch upon some of the research culture differences between the UK and the US. Have you noticed any other differences or discrepancies that come to mind when you compare and contrast your experience in the UK versus the last couple of years of being in the US?
AO: Yeah, I think I would say the biggest contrast really, and the reason why my PI pushed me to move here, is there's a lot more money available for research in the US. One of the main things here is the finance in the US allows you to be able to publish quicker, essentially, because you have access to fancier techniques that give you more meaningful data and insight, so that's number one. That's the biggest thing I would say. And for anyone like me, I didn't get many publications during my PhD, so I wanted publications. I needed them, so that was the reason I shifted over here. Then, I think that the culture in Europe versus the US is different in that—and I don't want to generalize and there's probably people who study this for a living, so I don't wanna say anything incorrect—I feel like in Europe, there is a lot less competition and a lot more of a collaborative atmosphere, whereas in the US, I think because of the access to the techniques and what you could potentially find, there's a lot more success here, and that success kind of drives people to be a lot more competitive and more cutthroat in my opinion than what I experienced back in Europe.
AB: Do you think then the advantageous aspects of the US will help you if you, in turn, want to return to the UK? I don't even know if that's your plan! Are you planning on going back?
AO: You know, it's hard. It's really hard. When I first moved here, I was like, 'Oh my God, I love the US! I wanna stay here.' But you know, with the pandemic hitting, I know a lot of Europeans who [said] it was a very eye opening experience for them. And they were like, 'You know what? I need to be closer to family.' So, the pandemic has changed a lot for me, because before I was like, 'Oh, it's just across the pond. I can fly back anytime. It's only six hours.' And then you realize things happen in life that mean that you can't fly back as easily. I'm still assessing that question at this stage. The other thing that we can also get into in a little bit is obviously I'm a woman of color, I'm a Black woman, and I find that the US has given me more opportunity to be able to talk about the challenges I face as a Black woman, as opposed to the UK where you couldn't even say the word 'Black'. In that sense, as hard as it is to be here and away from family, I do feel like I have more of a chance to make a ripple here, or make an impactful contribution to society and to life than I ever would in the UK.
But again, having said that, the pandemic has shifted so much that even now, when I was back in the UK I saw Surrey University released a scholarship program for Black students, and they actually said 'for Black students'! That was mind blowing to me because that doesn't happen in the UK. You don't address things about race that directly, so things are slowly starting to change in the UK too. But for now, I still feel like my calling or my purpose is currently in the US.
AB: Mm, I do notice that as well. I'm not the first person to say this, but in the US, race relations and racism tends to be more overt, whereas in the UK it tends to be more covert, so it's not that it's not there. It's just that people don't use the same language and it makes it really hard to describe what it is.
I wanted to talk a little bit more about venturing into spaces that might be different and foreign. You spoke about being a Black woman and in a recent interview with Stories of WiN—Women in Neuroscience—you talked about feeling like an outsider in some spaces, whether that be in Saudi Arabia or in England. I think a lot of trainees can speak to that, and I'd love for us to talk a little bit more about that. Do you think being an international trainee at this point in time has compounded any feelings of imposter syndrome or have you been like, 'No, I'm gonna take this. I deserve to be here.' What has been your experience?
AO: By this stage, I would have to say it's the latter, but definitely, being from a minority background—I hate using these terminologies because no one wants to classify themselves as a minority, they don't wanna be...
AB: Nor is it accurate!
AO: Nor is it accurate! Yeah, it's not, depending on which part of the world you're from. I go to Sudan, I'm not a minority, but unfortunately, colonialism and a bunch of other political forces at play meant that I had to leave my home country and venture into a place where I am a minority, so naturally, yes, you do end up feeling out of place because you're usually surrounded by people of other races or you're the only Black person in a room. And that was in both the science and in the modeling; anyone who's had experience in the fashion industry, especially Black models, you'll turn up to a photo shoot and the makeup artist doesn't have your color foundation, or you end up looking grey and pasty unless you go into the bathroom and quickly try and fix yourself, or they don't know how to deal with your hair, so I found that was a theme that was true across multiple fields, and also across multiple countries.
Much like you... Up until I'd spoken to you, I'd really never met anyone who's moved around as much as me, but you know, I was a minority in Saudi Arabia. They were majority Arab and, you know, Arabs are lighter and fair, more fair skinned, and they look down, unfortunately, on Africans and people with darker skin. So there, I felt like a minority and felt out place. Then you move to the UK, it's a Caucasian country and again, you're a Black woman in a Black family. So there, I felt out of place. And then I moved to the US, but actually the US is probably the one place that has the highest population of Black people in terms of a percent of the whole population, so I've actually felt less like an alien or an outsider here compared to what I felt in the UK. Again, here I'm British, so people hear my accent and they're like, 'Oh, you're not from here,' but still there's a solidarity and a sisterhood and a brotherhood that comes with being Black that it doesn't matter where you're from, you're a Black person. Our struggles have been the same worldwide. So, yeah... Strangely enough, the US is probably the first place that I've felt less alien, or less out of place.
AB: Mm. Okay, let's switch gears back to your research! Let's talk about what you do, what you study, how you study it, and what you love about it.
AO: Yeah! So, this is one of my favorite topics to talk about. Let's, I guess, start with my PhD. I guess I would classify myself as a behavioral neuroscientist. The more you get into any field, the more you realize how intricate and complex it is. So, there's people who have studied the brain, the circuits, and the molecular biology of the brain for the majority of their lives, and then I come in, and I've really studied the peripheral input to the brain: the gut microbiome and metabolites circulating in the body and how they influence brain function.
During my PhD actually, one of my supervisor's students realized that when you don't wean rats—so rats, conventionally in research, are weaned from their mothers at the age of postnatal day 21, so 21 days after they are born, the mother is removed from the cage and the animal is effectively weaned—one student kept forgetting to wean their pups. The lab that I came from did a technique called autoradiography, where you essentially use radioactive compounds to stain slices of the brain. Then, once you stain them, they give off a radioactivity and you can quantify that radioactivity to see the density of the receptors you're interested in. So, they kept doing autoradiography for opioid receptors and there was a group of opioid receptors that just wasn't showing up, and they were like, 'This is confusing. Why is this happening?' And then they realized that the rats that they were doing this autoradiography on were not weaned from their mother on the day that they were supposed to be weaned.
That raised the question of, 'What is it about being around your mother for longer than you should that results in these receptors not developing the way they should?' They originally thought it was something to do with milk exposure from the mother, so they were drinking milk for longer than they should have, so they did a set of experiments and basically honed [in] on that it was the fact that these rats had five days extra exposure to maternal milk that resulted in the disruption to the development of these opioid receptors. And we know the opioid system plays a huge role in mood regulation, so they did a bunch of behavioral testing and realized these animals were displaying depressive-like behavior.
AB: Oh, wow.
AO: Then my project started with trying to figure out what it was in milk that is dysregulating the normal development of these opioid receptors. We know when you drink milk, there's several proteins in there. One of those proteins is casein, which a lot of athletes now use in their milkshakes for muscle growth, but casein actually breaks down to release neuroactive peptides called β-Casomorphins. They're neuroactive because once they're broken down—they're digested in your stomach and broken down—they can actually enter to the brain and act on opioid receptors in the brain. So, my project was focused on pinning down whether it was a casein-driven effect, and we pinned down that it was casein causing this dysregulation to the opioid receptors. We also looked at oxytocin receptors. Oxytocin is another receptor system in the brain. That was one aspect of the project.
The other aspect we were looking at [was] the gut microbiome and how this five days of extra milk affects the composition of bacteria in the gut, and the interest in the gut is [because] the gut microbiome is developing or stabilizing around the same time that the brain is going through some of its most sensitive period, so in the first two years in humans. That was my PhD. And then, like I said, I interviewed in a few labs at Mount Sinai and [one] lab was doing gut microbiome. This is another thing that people should really keep in mind when doing science; once you find your niche, especially someone like me, who has so many different interests, you should try and stick to your niche because that's how you develop a set of techniques that people then come to you for, like, 'Oh, she does gut microbiome analysis. I need gut microbiomes analysis for my project,' so they'll come to you for that, and that's how you end up on more papers!
The lab I'm in now, Dr Drew Kiraly, is part of the Seaver Autism Center, so he has several projects. One [is] looking at the gut microbiome in addiction—and again, if you think about what I was saying before, that things that happen early in your life, like dietary exposure, can dysregulate systems in your brain that you need for mood regulation, so if you're depressed or if you have depression, that's usually one of the underlying factors that result in people abusing drugs in the first place. So, I really wanted to build on this skillset of looking at early life, environmental exposures as well as genetic exposure. Now, I'm working with a mouse model of autism, a Shank3 knockout mouse model, so I'm moving towards both genetic and environmental factors, how they interact to result in dysregulation to receptors and systems in the brain that are important for mood, and then how that can predispose you to abusing drugs.
AB: Fascinating! That's so extraordinary. You did talk a little bit about the pandemic putting a hamper on your plans on the personal side, but how about professionally? How has the pandemic affected this amazing work that you were just telling me about right now?
AO: Oh, God, it was so horrible! Oh, wow. Like I said, the pressure in the US is nonstop as I'm sure you know... Canada might be slightly different, but there's constant pressure, especially when you're working for a medical center. It doesn't stop, so when the pandemic hit and we were told to stay home, first thing we had to do—we have mouse lines that are breeding like crazy—we had to, you know, sac (sacrifice) a number of breeders so that we didn't have as many mice being generated. We had to downscale, and I had to be running behavior the whole time. I put animals on treatment for two months, so I have really big windows where I'm writing or doing molecular work. It was already a project that was quite slow, and the fact that the pandemic came and then I had to cut down on my breeders... and then later on, when we were allowed back in the lab, [I had] to ramp them back up. It took a huge chunk of time from my research.
Unfortunately, I knew instinctively from when we were told to stay home that, 'Okay, I'm not gonna be able to run experiments, and I [don't] have a ton of data to analyze,' because I was only a year into my work, so it was the most anxiety-inducing period of my life. And then, knowing that your clock on funding—I had funding through the Seaver Autism Center for three years—knowing that clock didn't stop... It's not like I knew I had a salary for five or six years. I knew I had a specific time-window after which I didn't have funding. I wouldn't have a salary or income, and for me to extend that funding or apply for another pot of money, I needed a paper. It was a Catch-22: I couldn't do any work, my clock was still ticking, I was still expected to present at lab meetings every week, so you're like, 'What do I present? I can't generate data!' It wasn't fun.
That's really why I channeled so much of my effort into thinking, 'Okay, there's a global pandemic. You're a scientist. There's something you can do to help right now. Not only help, but you can also help yourself and use it as a way to push your career along.' That's why, you know, my SciComm (science communication) efforts really kicked in. I had family asking about the virus, the immunity behind it, how it's evolving, what it does to our bodies, the brain fog associated with it, the vaccines when they came out, and I was like, 'Okay, I'm gonna do this on a platform where more people can get access to these answers that I'm giving out.' It turned into a side job! I got some really great things out of it; I recently got a publication in Frontiers in Communication out of it. So, I pivoted, essentially, during the pandemic, I was like, 'Alright, pivot! What can I do to further my career?' And that's how I dealt with anxiety and the stress of the pandemic.
AB: Forward thinking! So, to end off our conversation, I'd love to hear any words of wisdom that you'd like to share with our listeners. Is there something that you keep in mind, keeps you going so that you stay centered, stay grounded, but also pursue your dreams and your goals, however they may be for that day?
AO: Yeah! I think the main thing that I keep in mind when I'm working or when I'm getting out of bed in the morning is doing something for the greater good of the world. Finding that purpose is probably one of the hardest things, and we spend our whole life trying to find our purpose, but I wake up and remind myself each day, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you doing these experiments? Why are you stressing about writing these papers or getting these grants?' Ultimately, it's to find a solution to autism, or find a solution to addiction, and that's a greater good. That's something that's gonna come out and help the world, help humanity to live a better life. Trying to find the reason why you do most things will keep you engaged and keep you passionate.
The other advice that I have is generally—for scientists, young aspiring scientists— find a mentor! <Laugh> I say this over and over again, because it's something I didn't do quickly enough, or realize the importance of. It doesn't necessarily have to be your PhD advisor or your postdoc advisor—although they're very influential in your life, so choose them well—it could just be someone that you look up to in a different field and like, 'Oh, she's been through similar steps or experiences as me. I'm gonna reach out to her,' and that will really help you because what's the point of reinventing the circle if someone else has already done it. If you can keep in touch with those people, they can give you advice: advise you about grants or places to apply. So, find your purpose of why you're doing what you're doing day by day, find a good mentor or a bunch of mentors, and the third thing I would say is have a hobby!
AB: <Laugh> Yeah!
AO: I know being African or Middle Eastern, they don't really inspire that in you from early on. Like, play a sport! Play the flute, play the saxophone. Having a hobby allows you to have something [you enjoy to] switch off from your day to day work. Make sure it's something that you find rewarding because those dopamine hits that you get when you're doing those things is really, really important, and it avoids you trying to get those rewards from things that are more harmful, say drugs, or addiction to your phone, or whatnot. So, those are my three parting words of advice.
AB: That's beautiful. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, Dr Osman. It's been such a pleasure, and hopefully people will reach out to you in the future if they do see some parallels in their own lives with some of the things that you've shared today. I can't thank you enough.
AO: Thank you so much for having me, Dr Bashir. And again, thank you for your platform and your voice.
AB: Oh, thank you!
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