Personal Story - Mohammad Mian (Ph.D. Candiate, Ofek Lab)

My journey has been marked by distinct and turbulent unorthodoxy. To understand why, let's

rewind to the very beginning — a few months before the seismic events of 9/11. Just before my

birth, my mom embarked on a strategic journey to the United States, driven by a plan to

leverage the birthright citizenship policy. This wasn't their first foray into this unconventional

path; my sister had paved the way successfully.


Landing in Houston with a visitor’s visa, my mother sought refuge in a small Texan town a few

hours away, hosted by the generosity of my uncle and funded in part by my dad and

grandparents. The journey was far from smooth, but my mother's resourcefulness stretched

every dollar and made the venture viable. A few weeks after giving birth to me, we headed back

to Pakistan where I would eventually end up spending 16 years of my life. This journey, marked

by its jarring and unconventional nature, lays the foundation for my story.

Coming from absolutely no generational wealth, my family truly valued education. My mom was an English professor for Pakistan’s public higher education system, and my dad was a doctor for the Pakistani military. My parents had recognized that the only way for their family’s upward mobility was to push their children as hard as they could so that they could survive in a world that was becoming increasingly competitive and demanding. With unwavering dedication, they instilled in us a profound appreciation for learning, resilience, and hard work, knowing that in an ever-evolving world, a solid education would empower their children to navigate challenges and contribute meaningfully to society.


Growing up, I spent most of my years in Peshawar, a city in the northwestern corner of Pakistan where finding schools that provided a good education was challenging. I recall my mom guiding me through a series of school changes, trying to secure the right fit for my education. In second grade, my mom was particularly disgruntled when I struggled to spell the word “shoe” correctly. This frustration led her to visit the principal’s office the next day, resulting in my transfer to a different school with somewhat better academic standards. The constant transitions from one school to another persisted, further intensified by my dad’s job that mandated frequent relocations every few years due to changing assignments. These continual moves prompted my mom to take on a partial homeschooling role, ensuring that I remained academically on track regardless of our changing locations.

The schools I attended consistently lacked various essential elements, ranging from a shortage of lab supplies to a distressing absence of teachers and infrastructure. In 2011, my dad received a posting to a remote town in the deserts of southern Pakistan. In this isolated setting, my mom and several other officers' wives found themselves stepping in as substitutes for teachers, as there was a scarcity of available educators to teach the children in the local public school.


In 2014, one of the public schools in Peshawar that I used to attend fell victim to the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history, resulting in over 134 students and faculty killed in cold blood and countless more injured. I believe this tragic event acted as a catalyst for my parents' decision to have me move to the states sooner than initially planned (the original plan was to at least finish high school).

Fast forward to 9th grade, and I vividly remember the lead-up to one of the more critical standardized exams I had to take. We were constantly subjected to power outages during exams. The winding exam halls only had windows towards the front, and the further back you went, the darker it became to the point that you couldn’t see anything you were writing without a flashlight—a necessary item in my backpack at that point.


In 2017, I landed in Seattle—a 16-year-old high school dropout who had barely completed 9th- grade coursework, with only a few hundred dollars to my name. I set foot in a foreign country that called me it’s citizen, completely clueless about where my life was heading but with the will to make the most of what I had. My parents sent me to live with my grandparents in their one-bedroom apartment, hoping that I might enter the American education system and make

something of it. That same year, I applied to a youth re-engagement program at a local community college offering two years of free tuition and books to adolescents unable to attend high school due to extenuating circumstances. I completed their preliminary coursework and entered the program, marking the start of my undergraduate studies.


The two years spent at my community college were a fantastic time to explore my years-old,

boisterous curiosity for anything and everything in the realm of biology. The absence of financial constraints allowed me the luxury of taking any class I desired to satisfy my insatiable appetite for knowledge. Not having to worry about tuition also meant that I was free to take advantage of the resources and faculty my college provided.


With enough extra time, an ever-growing passion for biology, and an array of highly approachable instructors, I partnered with a professor to start a student-centric, research- driven biology club. The biology club quickly became popular across disciplines. Within a few months of its conception, it published its first small article in the Journal Nature, highlighting the club's success and the student-driven bioinformatics research in the field of viral genetics. By the end of my time at the community college, I was helping my professor and fellow peers write and edit the final drafts of our research paper, eventually published in the journal "Biotechniques." If you had told the freshly dropped-out version of myself that I would be the first author on a peer-reviewed research paper by the time I was 18, I would've chuckled and dismissed the very notion of it.

All that work culminated in securing a lab work-study position at a structural biology lab, getting into the University of Washington (where I got my bachelor’s degree in microbiology). It also helped me secure some cancer research/pharma internships and most importantly admission into the UMD MOCB PhD program.


Throughout my academic career, the trials and tribulations of research mirror my stubbornness to make the most out of less-than-ideal situations. Much like the challenges posed by research, life has thrown its share of obstacles my way. The dedication and resilience required in both endeavors serve as an allegory for overcoming adversity and transforming setbacks into opportunities for growth. The process of delving into the complexities of scientific inquiry, with its uncertainties and setbacks, resonates with my personal journey—each obstacle faced is an opportunity to learn, adapt, and emerge stronger on the other side. This parallel between the challenges of research and life's struggles has become a guiding force, anchoring my resolve, and pushing me to navigate the uncharted waters.