Research on cognitive decline propels biology senior to SCHC award
By Aïda Rogers
Habiba Fayyaz was in middle school when she began thinking about becoming a doctor, and right there at home was a big reason why—her father. Muhammad Rasul is an emergency physician at the Dorn VA hospital in Columbia. “Even if it was a hard day, he always had good things to say about the profession and how important it was,” says Fayyaz, ’18 Honors biology. “Not only was the profession serving others but it was super-interesting and growing, and one you could be innovative in.”
Fayyaz is already well on her way toward serving others. One indicator of her success is the 2018 William A. Mould Senior Thesis Award, which she was awarded in April. The award was based on the findings from her three-year research project on the neuropeptide Orexin A, which she had administered to rats intranasally to demonstrate a promising therapy for people with cognitive decline. Named after a founding dean of the Honors College and sponsored by his family in his memory, the Mould award includes a $1,000 prize. That’s cool recognition for six semesters of painstaking, somewhat repetitive work, preparing for experiments, studying slides, recording the findings, hoping for a dramatic breakthrough.
Did it get boring? “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t,” Fayyaz responds. But the benefits outweighed the negatives. “I got to not just be involved but see it from beginning to end. By being there for so long, I got to observe every procedure. I learned about my grad student’s portion of the project as well as mine, and learned why each part was important.”
The intranasal delivery of Orexin A is important because of its potential to be a therapy for patients with signs of cognitive decline and to alleviate the impairments observed in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Administering it intranasally also has its advantages: it’s faster and less invasive than other approaches.
“Orexin is an interesting protein because it serves as a physiological integrator of a lot of unique functions,” Fayyaz explains. “Mood, food intake, cognition and sleep patterns are all connected to this one protein, and those things separately don’t seem related. But the more research you do, you find that many of these functions are connected, either directly or indirectly, to each other. For example, older patients with deficits in their cognitive abilities or memory may also experience weight loss and have really dysregulated sleep patterns, which makes you think there are some neurological connections between these functions. Orexin has been shown to play a significant role in the progression of mild cognitive impairments, and its use as a treatment could be at the forefront of addressing these challenges in aging populations.”
Jim Fadel was impressed with her work.
“Habiba has an exceptional ability to process complex scientific information and talk and write about it in a way that goes well beyond regurgitating facts or catch phrases,” he wrote in his letter nominating her for the Mould award. A professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience at the USC School of Medicine, Fadel described how Fayyaz impressed students and faculty with her research presentations. A peer-reviewed manuscript about their research—Fayyaz is second author—was published in the December 2017 Journal of Neurochemistry. She also is second author on another manuscript currently being prepared; it includes her remaining thesis work.
As a student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, Fayyaz immersed herself in science projects and reading—often dipping into her father’s medical books and journals. Diabetes intrigued her then, and she thought she’d be a pediatric endocrinologist. Working in Fadel’s lab redirected her to neurology.
“I found neuroscience to be a fascinating field, one of the most complex and poorly understood fields, in a way,” she says. “There’s so much about the brain and the different pathways that cause us to think and react in different ways that are really fascinating to me, and something I want to continue learning about.”
A Stamps scholar who was awarded a Magellan grant to conduct her research, Fayyaz also volunteered at the Columbia Free Clinic. She will attend the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston this fall. Her older sister Humna, ’14 Honors biology, will be doing her residency there at the same time.
Humna Fayyaz’s praise for the Honors College—its small classes and research opportunities—wasn’t lost on her younger sister. The sincere welcome from the staff of the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs during Top Scholar Weekend sealed the deal. “They gave me the feeling that they wanted me to be there and were telling us about the opportunities for research funding and internships.”
While Habiba thinks she’ll be a practicing physician, she knows her research experience was a vital part of her USC career. “One thing I love about research is doing something that’s hands on, that lets me think about different processes and connections, and doing something with that. If I don’t do more research in the future, I’m leaning to specialties that lead me to work with different procedures and different diagnostic tools. That’s really become important to me.”
As with most honors students, Fayyaz has a range of interests. In her spare time, when she finds it, she likes to paint. Portraits and hands are her favorites. And her alternate career? Stand-up comedy. “It would be fun to perform my own jokes,” she confides. “I have fantasy scenarios, like Jon Stewart offering me a gig for The Daily Show.”