Student Spotlight: Saba Parvez

Saba Parvez

What is your area of research?

I am a graduate student in Professor Yimon Aye’s lab in the dept. of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Our lab is interested in understanding the molecular details of how cellular communication work. Our focus is on an emerging non-canonical form of cellular communication called redox signaling. Herein cells use highly-reactive small molecule chemical redox signals like hydrogen peroxide and lipid electrophiles to trigger very specific biological responses at a precise time and space, and they do so largely via direct interactions with a specific redox-signal sensor protein without involvement of a mediator enzyme. At the outset of our work, there had been no technology to mimic these targeted redox events that are fundamental to cellular physiology. Deregulation of redox signaling underpins many forms of age-related human disorders. Without the ability to precisely decipher the networks of specific redox pathways, our current understanding of redox signaling both in physiology and in disease states has lagged behind other classical forms of enzyme-assisted cell signaling such as phosphorylation. To overcome this problem, we have developed a unique method to selectively modify specific proteins in cells with these reactive species in living systems and do so at a precise time thus mimicking a natural signaling event. My goal is to use this novel tool to better understand the signaling role that lipid electrophile and oxidants play in maintenance of cellular health.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

As an undergraduate at Bates College, I took a few classes in cellular and molecular biology. My fascination with cellular signaling took root during those classes. I am intrigued by how the smallest building blocks of life are so amazingly complex. They respond to various stimuli, communicate with each other, and coordinate numerous responses. It is as if they have minds of their own. Despite all the scientific advancements in the field of cellular signaling there is still so much to explore and that is why I chose this field. Also, with an undergraduate degree in chemistry I thought working in a lab that uses chemistry to understand biological details would be apt.

Why is this research important?

Redox signaling is important for cellular fitness. When it goes awry it can lead to diseases like cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. By understanding the molecular details of these signaling pathways we can identify therapeutic targets that can prove to be a step toward curing these diseases.

How has your background influenced your scholarship?

My journey so far has been a series of serendipitous small steps. I was one of the few students from my region to be selected for a fully-funded secondary education in India. That opened the door for the next step in my career. I was provided with a full scholarship by Pestalozzi International Village Trust to study International Baccalaureate in the UK which paved the way for my next 4 years of undergraduate education at Bates College and subsequently to Cornell for my PhD. None of this would have been possible without the generosities of the institutions and the individuals involved. I am also very fortunate to have parents who have supported me throughout this endeavor.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

My mentors in undergraduate and graduate school have immensely helped me grow as a scientist. I still have a long way to go but I can definitely see the personal growth in the last 4 to 5 years.

What other hobbies or activities do you enjoy in your spare time?

Cooking, listening to old Bollywood and Nepali songs, watching nature documentaries, hanging out with friends.

Why did you choose Cornell?

During the visiting weekend for graduate students, what appealed to me the most about Cornell was how approachable the professors were. Also, I saw a strong sense collaboration and cooperation among professors. They also seemed to care about student’s education and training.  I am really glad I chose Cornell.

What’s next for you?

I hope to finish my Ph.D. by the end of fifth year. I plan on doing a post-doc for 2-3 years in US and then apply for an academic and research position in India.

Any advice for incoming graduate students?

Even though five years feels like a long time, it goes by really fast. So, I think it is important to join a lab early on and get a head start.