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A grant helps a new American pursue a career in neuroscience

Ayan Hussein’s journey took her from war-torn Somalia to a burgeoning career as a neuroscientist.
Ayan Hussein’s journey took her from war-torn Somalia to a burgeoning career as a neuroscientist.

When she balances miniature forceps and spring scissors between her fingers and peers at a mouse retina floating in a dish beneath her microscope, Ayan Hussein feels at her most content. Hussein, who’s pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience in Yale’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program, dissects mice retinas. Hussein regularly logs up to 60 hours, including weekends, in the lab of In-Jung Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology, visual science, and neurobiology. This is par for the course for the young researcher, with a CV that includes top-tier awards and recognitions.

Her most recent award, the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, represents for Hussein a sense of belonging that previous awards haven’t provided. “The biggest benefit I’ll get from being a Soros fellow, aside from the financial support, is becoming a lifelong member of the incredible community of New Americans,” Hussein said. She was one of 30 awarded the fellowship in the spring and will receive tuition and stipend assistance of up to $90,000 for her graduate studies at Yale. Hussein joins an elite group of Americans who were born abroad but have become permanent residents or naturalized citizens, including Vivek Murthy, M.D. ’03, M.B.A. ’03, who recently became the U.S. Surgeon General.

Hussein remembers getting the phone call from a Soros representative who brought her the good news. “I was actually right here in this hallway,” Hussein said, gesturing to the corridor outside Kim’s lab on George Street. “And I remember just collapsing on the floor—I was so excited.”

In her first year of the Ph.D. program, Hussein will go through several lab rotations before she settles into a lab that will support her dissertation work, which will likely focus on brain plasticity. Now she studies the role of interneurons in neural circuit development using the mice she works with intimately.

Hussein describes her other awards with modesty. She won a 2015 National Science Foundation Graduate Research fellowship earlier this year. Before beginning her studies at Yale in fall 2014, she wrapped up nearly two years of research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in the lab of Hirofumi Morishita, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, neuroscience, and ophthalmology. She completed those studies through the National Institutes of Health-funded Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP). “We investigated the molecular mechanism of brain plasticity in an effort to provide novel therapeutic targets for amblyopia [lazy eye] and other neurodevelopmental disorders,” Hussein said. “The support and encouragement I received from the PREP committee and Dr. Morishita and the entire lab solidified my passion for neuroscience research and academia.” An article based on that research, her first-to-be-published article, is under review. She will be the third author.

As an undergraduate at the University of Georgia in Athens, Hussein studied psychology. She attended the university on a full scholarship through the Gates Millennium Scholars Program. She spent her senior year abroad at the University of Oxford studying with prominent neuroscience scholars. “The system [in Oxford] is really different. You have a lot of one-on-one reading time with professors,” Hussein said. “They were asking me for my opinions on papers written by experts in the field.”

All of her quiet intensity belies a tumultuous early beginning. Hussein was born in Somalia, but was whisked away as a toddler as her mother, father, and sister fled a worsening civil war in the early nineties, landing in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya. Her neighbor in the camp had a black-and-white television which relayed two significant events: the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and in Nairobi, Kenya, and the World Trade Center attacks of September 11. “I did not quite understand what was going on,” Hussein said of the events of 9/11. “I thought the scenes were from an action movie. But my father later explained that they were real attacks.”

Two years later, Hussein and her sister left the camp to live with an aunt in Clarkston, Ga. Once she arrived in the Atlanta suburb, Hussein faced further challenges. “It wasn’t a fairy tale coming to America,” she said. Hussein, then 16, started high school knowing only a few phrases in English. The first year she fell behind in all her classes. Through the help of her English as a second language (ESOL) tutor, she gained traction and threw herself into learning. Those past memories help drive Hussein’s future goals, which include working to increase the number of minority scientists and running her own lab one day.