Ubadah Sabbagh doesn’t just see the potential for what Virginia Tech can do at its growing academic health center in Roanoke. He lives it.

The Ph.D. candidate lives in a downtown apartment, enjoys the mountains, and can sometimes be found delivering talks about neurological mapping to rapt audiences at Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers.

It’s not just how Sabbagh lives, though, that showcases one potential future for the riverside campus that includes the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. It’s what he does in collaborating every day with fellow researchers from a broad range of backgrounds and disciplines.

“The openness of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute community — both figuratively and literally, in terms of having open lab spaces — has really been a key thing for my development and for a lot of trainees here,” Sabbagh said. “If I need to learn a new technique for one of my experiments and my lab has no experience with it, I can just walk down the hall or into the lab next to me and learn from them. Being able to do this has really taken my research to the next level, allowing to answer more complex research questions, and that’s already happening all over the research institute.”

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Sabbagh’s research involves mapping the ventral lateral geniculate nucleus (vLGN), a structure in the thalamus section of the brain that processes visual information coming through the optic nerve. This structure is associated with not just vision but other, non-image-forming functions, such as the programming of biological clocks, eye muscle movements, and even one’s mood.

In July, the National Institutes of Health awarded Sabbagh a $390,000 Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award. Designed to support outstanding doctoral candidates of underrepresented backgrounds in neuroscience research, D-SPAN was awarded to just 10 students from across the nation in this cycle. The grant will not only fund the remaining two years of Sabbagh’s Ph.D. studies, but four years of postdoctoral work as well.

“I find a lot of fulfillment in teaching and mentorship,” Sabbagh said. “At the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Translational Biology, Medicine and Health graduate program, I’ve had a great wealth of opportunities and resources to craft my professional identity in a way that prepares me for the next stage. My career goal is to establish my own lab, perhaps even at Virginia Tech, with a cutting-edge research program studying development and regeneration of circuits in the brain, and with a strong training program for junior scientists focus on underrepresented scientists in the field of neuroscience.”

Like many Hokies, Sabbagh came to Virginia Tech already imbued with a desire to serve.

“I believe my job as a scientist isn’t just about making discoveries and trying to contribute to curing diseases, it also is a responsibility to inspire and inform the public — who funds us and who we really work for — of our work,” Sabbagh said.

Besides research and teaching, Sabbagh also serves as an advocate, publishing articles in Scientific American and the Huffington Post during his first years of graduate school. In addition to his writing, Sabbagh has received several awards to travel to Capitol Hill with scientists from across the nation and advocate for increasing funding for biomedical research in the federal budget for the NIH.

Born a Syrian national, Sabbagh immigrated to the United States at the age of 16, when he began attending community college in Kansas City, Missouri. He later transferred to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he majored in bioinformatics and began his journey into scientific research.

When it came time to choose a graduate school, Sabbagh found himself drawn by Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health (TBMH) program, especially its interdisciplinary vision. Sabbagh knew he was interested in neuroscience, but the program allowed him to also explore cancer biology, health implementation science, immunology, and other disciplines.

“I became a more well-rounded researcher and better equipped to come up with creative ideas,” Sabbagh said. “For example, I spent a lot of time studying how immunologists ask their questions and the tools they use to address them. Today, I incorporate some of that into my own research in neuroscience.”

“When we launched the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and when we started the TBMH graduate program, we wanted to identify and recruit faculty and students who were unafraid of working across disciplinary boundaries and hungry to learn and innovate at the interfaces of disciplines,” said Michael Friedlander, the founding executive director of the research institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “We were very successful in recruiting many such faculty who in short order have made Virginia Tech a destination for convergence and consilience of what sometimes seem to be disparate approaches to solve complex biomedical problems. Ubadah represents the type of graduate student in our TBMH program who exemplifies and embraces this strategy at the learner level and who is clearly on a path to be a leading academic biomedical scientist in his own right. He is the perfect recipient of the new prestigious NIH D-SPAN award.”

In Roanoke and Blacksburg, which he regularly visits for collaboration and presentations by other researchers, Sabbagh found a cohesive community of fellow graduate students who support and advocate for each other. They also collaborate to put their skills to work for the surrounding community, whether participating in outreach program for local high school students or talking science at breweries, coffeehouses, and other unconventional classrooms.

“You just feel the excitement of people,” Sabbagh said. “They’re eager to learn from us and we’re grateful for their community and support. Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the exciting expansion we’re going through at the FBRI is something both we and Roanoke are thrilled to be a part of.”

— Written by Mason Adams

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