A doctoral candidate conducting research at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC was named to Forbes Magazine’s 2020 list of the 30 young innovators in science with potential to make it big.

Ubadah Sabbagh, a fifth-year student in Virginia Tech’s translational biology, medicine, and health program, performs National Institutes of Health-funded research mapping the architecture of underexplored circuits of the visual brain. He’s also a writer and voice for underrepresented groups in science.

Sabbagh, 27, is joined on the Forbes “30 under 30” in science watch list by students, faculty, and postdoctoral fellows from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and other leading universities. Forbes announced its 10th annual edition of the list Tuesday.

In all, the international business magazine recognized 600 young leaders across 20 categories in entertainments, sports, business and industry, health care, and activism who “give everyone reason to hope.”

“Ubadah is exactly the kind of curious and driven young researcher we are proud to have as part of our community here at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute's executive director. “He enthusiastically embraces the ethos of pursuing scientific inquiry to make discoveries for future generations with real enthusiasm, curiosity, and humility. Moreover, he brings that same passion to improving life for others today through his service to underrepresented communities and his voice on the national stage on matters of equity and inclusion.”

Sabbagh’s research is funded by the National Institutes of Health, and he has been an advocate for science representing the Society of Neuroscience before the U.S. Congress.

“This is yet another prestigious form of recognition bestowed on Ubadah, which recognizes his unique combination of talents that extend far beyond his laboratory and critical-thinking skills and have allowed him to contribute to science communication, policy, and outreach both locally and nationally,” said Michael Fox, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Sabbagh’s mentor, and director of Virginia Tech’s School of Neuroscience in the College of Science. “It’s rare to have honed all of these skills and it’s what sets Ubadah apart.”

In his Forbes profile, Sabbagh was asked what phone app he can’t live without (Gmail) or who his dream mentor is (Anthony Fauci). He knew from inquiries from Forbes that he was a finalist for the list, but didn’t know he’d made the final cut until a friend congratulated him at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Sabbagh welcomes the platform to advocate for people from underrepresented groups in science.

He’s a Syrian immigrant who came to the U.S. at 15, got an academic foothold at a community college before transferring to the University of Missouri, Kansas City, on the way to graduate school at Virginia Tech. He’s honored to be included on a set of Forbes lists that are comprised by nearly 50 percent people of color and 20 percent immigrants.

“It's deeply meaningful to me to see immigrants and other people who are marginalized in this society be recognized for their work,” Sabbagh said. “The advocacy, outreach, and science communication work that I do is really important to me, and I consider that part of my professional identity as a scientist. Mike Fox gives me the space to explore these passions that I have outside of the bench work. We have the kind of community where, thanks to the value Dr. Friedlander places on it and the support he gives, there’s this embedded ethos of service. It’s an inspiring place be.”

Sabbagh’s research with Fox produced a deeper understanding of how one part of the brain that processes visual information, the ventral lateral geniculate nucleus (vLGN), is constructed. The region is also associated with biological clocks, eye muscle movements, and mood.

Sabbagh mapped the layered structure of the region, which indicated multiple types of information are processed there – a finding confirmed by a computer program coded by Sabbagh. Further testing confirmed the main layers of that part of the thalamus receive direct visual signals from retinal neurons in the eye.

The work may contribute to a richer understanding of how the visual area connects to other parts of the brain.

Sabbagh expects to defend his doctoral dissertation in May.

“Looking at the other people who are named to the list, I’m very honored to be mentioned alongside them. They’re well-respected scholars in their fields and leaders in science and in science advocacy,” Sabbagh said.

—Written by Matt Chittum

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