Interview with Neuroscientist, Dr. Maria Muhammad


 Photo Credit: Dr. Maria Muhammad 


In my interview with Dr. Maria Muhammad, she shared with me her journey of becoming a neuroscientist. 

Nadine Muhammad: Please, would you tell our readers about yourself?
Dr. Maria Muhammad:  I was born and raised in Jackson, MS, and lived there for most of my life. I was born into the Nation of Islam and became a registered member when I was 17. My upbringing in the Nation, as well as the training that I received from my mother and father (Kathryn and David), strongly influenced my drive to be where I am today and I can never thank Allah enough for allowing me to be part of his Nation. I am the oldest sibling of three and have a younger brother (Dawud) and sister (Salimah). I'm married to my amazing husband, Thristrum, who has been a strong supporter of me throughout my journey. I currently work as a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the Neurobiology department. 
Nadine Muhammad:  Would you share with us your educational journey?
Dr. Maria Muhammad:  My journey, particularly in research, started in high school. I was accepted into a program called BASE PAIR in 2012. This program introduced high school students who attended Murrah High School to the biomedical research field. I worked as a research assistant within the Psychiatry and Human Behavior Department. I enjoyed my time here and knew that I wanted to make a career out of science. While I was a freshman at Tougaloo College, I applied for and was accepted into the Jackson Heart Study Undergraduate Training and Education Program, where I worked in a biochemistry lab. I continued to be a part of other programs while in college such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute program, the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate program, where I worked a summer at the University of Mississippi in the Forensic Chemistry Department, and the Summer Research Early Identification program at Brown University, where I worked in the Bioengineering department. While none of these labs focused on neuroscience directly, I was able to use the experiences to think more broadly about neuroscience. These experiences resulted in me getting accepted into the Ph.D. in Neuroscience program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where I worked as a Graduate Research Assistant in the Neurology Department. Once I graduated, I accepted a position as a postdoctoral scientist in the neurobiology department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Nadine Muhammad: How old were you when you received your PhD in neuroscience?
Dr. Maria Muhammad: I received my PhD when I was 27 years old. 
Nadine Muhammad: Would you explain to us what is neuroscience?
Dr. Maria Muhammad: Broadly, neuroscience is the study of the brain and understanding how the biological and chemical changes within our brain influence our behavior. There are many different fields of neuroscience, such as classic neurology or neurobiology, which mostly focus on molecular changes such as genetics or chemical changes in the brain that influence the development of disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or Epilepsy. There are other fields such as behavioral neuroscience, which predominantly investigates the influence of our environment on the development of our behavior. Many of the fields of neuroscience are connected to other fields of research such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, and psychology. Because of this, the neuroscience field is considered interdisciplinary.
Nadine Muhammad: At what age did you know that you wanted to major in science?
Dr. Maria Muhammad: I actually didn't know that I wanted to be a scientist until I was in middle school. Initially, I wanted to follow other career paths. I wanted to become a choreographer, later I wanted to become a basketball player, and at one point I was really into real estate and wanted to become a real estate broker. But when I was in middle school, my interest in science was piqued. After graduating from Murrah High School, I was accepted into Tougaloo College, where I chose to major in chemistry.
 Photo Credit: Dr. Maria Muhammad
Nadine Muhammad: What was the one experience  in your educational journey  that had the most impact in your early educational career  that made you say, I would like to study science?
Dr. Maria Muhammad: When I was in 6th grade, I participated in my middle school science fair. My mother helped me with a project that focused on the effect of music on learning and memory. It wasn't a very sophisticated experiment, since my father was my only volunteer, but I still had a lot of fun coming up with an idea to test out my hypothesis for my experiment. From that experience, I became fascinated by the way we use our brains and how our environment has such a significant impact on our conscious and unconscious actions. This, I would say, was a defining moment for me and my journey in science in general, but neuroscience specifically.
Nadine Muhammad: In your career as a neuroscientist, share with us your current project?
Dr. Maria Muhammad: I currently have two main projects. One project focuses on investigating whether the ketogenic diet can be used as a way to rescue age-related memory loss. Another project focuses on investigating the role of an important system called the endocannabinoid system in the development of our brains. This system is known more so because it is what allows the cannabis plant to work in our brains and bodies. I want to know what effect exposure to two main ingredients in the cannabis plant (THC and CBD) has on the developing brain of offspring while in the womb.
Nadine Muhammad: To pave the way for the next generation of scientists, what can parents do to encourage their children to study the sciences and take on  STEM careers?
Dr. Maria Muhammad: Study your children. Children are naturally curious and want to know so much about the world. I am a firm believer that children are natural-born scientists. Encourage them to continue to ask questions, but also encourage them to find answers to their questions. Encourage them to participate in science fairs and help them make projects that they can be 100% involved in. Even if parents don't know the answer to all of their children's questions, this can be used as an opportunity for both the parents and children to learn together, building a stronger bond with one another and building an early love for all things STEM. As they get older, continue to study them and place them in programs with like-minded children. This will show them there are others just like them, and build their confidence. 
Nadine Muhammad: Thanks so much for sharing your inspiring journey!
Dr. Maria Muhammad:  Praise be to Allah (God). Thanks for the Opportunity!
Nadine Muhammad: Here is a list of books that parents can get to build their children's home library to learn and study more about science: