Two Weill Cornell Graduate Students Awarded HHMI Fellowships

a composite image of two graduate students

Two doctoral students at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences have been awarded prestigious Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Ph.D. candidates Ahmed Mahmoud and Ifé Akano, both in the pharmacology program, are among 51 students nationwide selected for the 2022 HHMI award. The fellowship, awarded to the students and their dissertation advisors, was established in 2004 and provides $53,000 per year for up to three years of dissertation research. It aims to advance diversity and inclusion in U.S. sciences by identifying underrepresented groups in the field.

The chosen student-advisor pairs were recognized both for the students’ outstanding potential for scientific leadership and the advisors’ support for positive and inclusive culture change while mentoring and training them. Students attend a Gilliam Annual Meeting and participate in HHMI leadership training, while advisors take part in a year-long, culturally responsive mentorship course.

Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences represents a unique partnership of researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine and the Sloan Kettering Institute, which enables graduate students to directly apply their scientific training to researching disease therapies.

“I’m very excited and in disbelief about winning this fellowship,” said Mahmoud, whose advisor is Dr. Karuna Ganesh of the Sloan Kettering Institute and an assistant professor of pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “It’s great to be able to network with others from diverse backgrounds and be inspired by their work,” Mahmoud added.

Mahmoud’s dissertation research focuses on dormant or “quiescent” cells in cancer—which stop dividing and spreading, at least temporarily—and how those cells’ microenvironments promote inactivity. He hopes to eventually run his own lab at a large, research-focused institution and that his work might lead to treatments to halt cancer metastases.

“In this area of research, you learn you can do things no one has done before and I feel confident being on the frontier,” said Mahmoud.

Akano’s advisor is Dr. Yael David at the Sloan Kettering Institute and an assistant professor of pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “I look forward to taking full advantage of everything the Gilliam Fellowship will offer and I’m very grateful and humbled to receive this award,” she said.

Her dissertation research focuses on epigenetics—how environment and behaviors can affect gene regulation—and how this interplay may go awry in cancer. She hopes to not only improve the scientific understanding of epigenetics and cancer, but to “positively impact as many lives as I can,” she said. “Not only through my research, but also my outreach and diversity work.”

Both Mahmoud and Akano agreed that the HHMI distinction will greatly enhance their future paths. “It’s incredible to get this level of leadership and programming experience,” Mahmoud said.

“Just being affiliated with HHMI comes with a level of prestige that will help carry me throughout my entire career,” Akano said. “It opens a lot of doors.”

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