This professor leads groundbreaking opioid research while guiding the next generation of scientists

photo by Myles Francisco
Photo by Myles Francisco.

If you’re asking award-winning mentor Hamid Akbarali, the secret to success in any field is critical thinking. That’s what the VCU pharmacology and toxicology professor tells every student who dreams of going into the sciences.

“Developing the skills to be able to critically think is an important goal that I have,” Akbarali said. “I’m working with them to the point that they have a fire in their belly and it really doesn’t matter what they do they could be doing different fields of science.”

Akbarali is the director of the VCU Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), which trains and mentors underrepresented students in the biomedical sciences.

“There is an increase in population that goes to college, so they’re getting into the undergraduate component but then we have a lack of minority students in the STEM field anyway,” Akbarali said. “The number that actually get into graduate school diminishes and the ones that actually end up in academic positions even further into research and STEM fields.”

Sarah Golding, director of the undergraduate IMSD program, said prior the start of IMSD in 2010, there was no record of African-American students entering a PhD program in the sciences from VCU. Since 2010, 60 undergrads have joined the program and VCU experienced a huge increase in underrepresented students pursuing graduate education in the sciences as well as students in general, Golding said.

“We want our future professors to be representative of our population and not just coming from elite schools, from affluent backgrounds,” Golding said. “We need the most complicated questions of our world to be answered by people who look like our world.”

IMSD recently received three more years of funding through a division of the National Institute of Health. The program is just one of many VCU offers to help students of all backgrounds achieve goals in the sciences. Golding said Akbarali is exactly what students need — he leads by example.

“What he brings is years of experience and training students and knowing what they need to succeed, but also a very gentle fatherly approach to helping the students reach their goals,” Golding said. “And he’s a really accomplished scientist so he can stand in front of them and say, ‘I did this, I know what it takes.’”

If there is anyone who knows what it takes, it’s probably Akbarali. He was born in Pakistan and went to elementary school in Kenya. His father died when he was young, but his mother wasn’t going to let anything hinder her son receiving the best education possible. So, Akbarali traveled to the University of London for undergraduate studies, where he discovered his passion for pharmacology. And then he attended the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada for his Ph.D. He went on to teach at Harvard University.

Akbarali arrived at VCU in 2005 and is the director of Graduate Training and Postdoctoral Training as well as director of the Pharmacology Department. He serves as a guide to every graduate student in the program in addition to the students in his own lab.

Since then, he was named professor of the year by students in the department in 2011. In 2013, he was named teacher of the year in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and in 2015, he won the Distinguished Mentor Award for the School of Medicine.

Akbarali is a top researcher. And with the Harvey B. Haag professorship, he is able to study the role of gut bacteria in mediating opioid tolerance.

“One of the reasons that people overdose is that they haven’t become tolerant to the respiratory depressant effects but they’ve become tolerant to the euphoric effects,” Akbarali said. “People will take more and because they’re not tolerant they’ll still respond and they’ll have respiratory depression and that’s how they overdose and die.”

Akbarali’s research discovered chronic opioids alter the microbiome of the gut, which may be an important factor in tolerance production.

“So the tolerance we get to these pain-relieving effects, it may be linked to the microbiome itself. We’re changing something in the gut and it’s affecting what we think is normally the brain,” Akbarali said. “We are at the process where we just identified changes in the gut microbiome. We have a long ways to go in actually identifying which particular bacterial species that were talking about.”

Akbarali’s passion for science is most evident as he describes the questions he has yet to answer. That’s why Akbarali pushes his mentees to not solve problems, but instead find ways to develop problem-solving skills. This way, he knows the fire in their belly will outlast his mentorship.

SaraRose Martin, News Editor

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