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Armin Nourani: Seek the Critique

His approach might not be for the faint-of-heart, but Armin Nourani doesn't simply wonder what went wrong when he faces a rejection letter. He seeks out answers.


"I make it my goal to not be rejected twice from something," Nourani says with a laugh. "Every time I face a rejection letter, I contact whoever did the evaluation to see what I can improve so that by the second time I apply, I can show improvement in that area." The University of Texas at Austin undergraduate's stick-to-itiveness has paid off. Each re-application earned him success and acted as a springboard to greater achievement.

While he advises others to be fearless in the face of critiques and find motivation for self-improvement, he acknowledges that this can be a tall order for students starting out. Seeking out answers was a difficult task for Nourani at first, but taking those steps offered clarity and positive results. "Use criticism to build confidence," he recommends. "By going after improvement, you prepare yourself for many opportunities."

He encourages other students to apply for everything, from grants, fellowships and internships to scholarships and honors programs. "It may seem a bit much, but the whole application process is a great skill to master. In applying for these things, I have learned more about how to present myself. When I am turning in a little sheet of paper that is supposed to represent all of me and my work, I want to complete it to the best of my ability."

A perfected presentation recently helped Nourani snag an enviable position at the SLAS2015 podium. Last summer, like many other students, he submitted work to the SLAS2015 Student Poster Competition. His entry then became one of 60 student posters chosen to appear at the Society's International Conference and Exhibition.

He also applied for and received an SLAS2015 Tony B. Academic Travel Award. Nourani was among 56 students, graduate students, post-doc researchers and junior faculty members who received Tony B. awards to present their scientific achievements at SLAS2015. The award provides each winner with conference registration, airfare (or personal auto/mileage reimbursement) and shared accommodations at an SLAS conference hotel. Based on availability, Tony B. awardees may also enroll in a short course for no additional cost.

At this point in the story, something a little unusual happened. An opening in the Biomarker Discovery and Applications track led SLAS Track Chair Daniel Chelsky, Ph.D., of Caprion Proteomics, and Associate Track Chair David Hirschberg, Ph.D., of Columbia University, to consider Nourani's poster for a podium presentation. They thought it would be a great fit for the track, as long as the undergraduate student could successfully manage it. Because Nourani is an undergraduate, the SLAS team contacted Nourani's advisors, Andrew D. Ellington, Ph.D., and Sanchita Bhadra, Ph.D., to see if Nourani was willing and prepared to make a presentation that would meet SLAS standards and expectations. With a vote of confidence from Ellington and Bhadra, Nourani became the first ever undergraduate to make a podium presentation at an SLAS conference.

His presentation, "Implementation of Nucleic Acid Circuitry in Detection of Melanoma Gene Biomarkers," reveals a molecular approach to finding cancer-markers at earlier stages of melanoma, thus increasing the viability of treatment options. His research highlights several recent developments in nucleic acid circuitry and electrochemical signal transduction of molecular targets.

The move from poster to podium lofted Nourani into a unique league of research scientists, engineers, academics and business leaders, whom SLAS invites to submit abstracts for consideration each year. Even for a seasoned professional, the invitation to present is a great honor.

Nourani admits he was a bit nervous at first, but wasn't about to pass up a good opportunity over a bit of nerves. "I have given oral presentations before on my research but never in front of such trained scientists at the forefront of the field," Nourani says. "I knew I had a solid foundation with my research and this led me to feel that I could present it at the podium."

When the big day arrived, Nourani was the third speaker on the program. "Seeing how calm and confident the first two presenters were and how responsive the audience was, helped me relax and be confident," he relates, adding that he got wonderful feedback from the other presenters and the audience. He was impressed with the wide range of people the conference attracted. While he expected professionals from academia, he also enjoyed this rare opportunity to connect with those from industry and government while still a student.

Becoming a Self-Starter

Nourani's pursuit of perseverance began during his junior year of high school when the Dallas, TX native decided to study medicine. As he started the application process for college, he saw a need for more hands-on experiences. "Until that point, I hadn't done anything but read textbooks," he says. "It was a big obstacle for me to push myself to pursue activities that would prove my capabilities to others. I got involved in mentoring and volunteering in hospitals – things that exposed me to the world of science and medicine. I had to get out of my shell to develop some confidence."

He is glad now for this push. "It has truly shaped me in ways I would have had difficulty imagining," he says. "A couple of years ago, I would have been intimidated by participating in this SLAS ELN profile!"

As his search for hands-on experience continued into his college years, Nourani applied and was accepted into the UT Freshman Research Initiative (UT FRI), a program in UT's College of Natural Sciences that offers first-year students the opportunity to advance academically while doing cutting-edge, original, publishable research in chemistry, biochemistry, nanotechnology, molecular biology, physics, astronomy and computer sciences.

Nourani describes UT FRI as one of the biggest contributions to his decision to pursue research. "Prior to that I had absolutely no experience in research," Nourani explains. "I was absolutely 100 percent pre-med upon entering the program; however this introduction to research ignited a fire in me," he says.

Through the program, Nourani became involved in The Aptamer Lab, created by Ellington, a Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA) author and pioneer of aptamer technologies. The lab uses oligonucleotide chemistry, in vitro selection methodology and biochemistry to develop novel therapeutics, diagnostics and molecular sensors. Nourani spent a year working on a bacterial diagnostic for Burkholderia pseudomallei in the lab and then transitioned into a role as a mentor for the program's incoming students.

"The Aptamer Lab was a mind-blowing experience!" Nourani says. "It shows a lot of introductory practices, thought processes and methodologies involved with research of which I was not aware. It got me excited about research and thinking about it as a future career path for the first time."

While involved with UT FRI, Nourani learned about a summer research fellowship offered by the program. "I was set on earning a fellowship so that I could stay in Austin over the summer to continue my work in the Aptamer Lab," he explains. "At that point, I had to prove my dedication. I was working as hard as I could and doing as much work as possible."

It paid off. Earning the fellowship not only provided funding to continue his research, but also became a springboard to the UT Dean's Scholars Honors Program. "This is one of those cases in which I had applied once and been rejected. The second time I got in," Nourani states. "When I talked to them about where to improve, they indicated that involvement with faculty and research would advance my prospects. The summer fellowship helped provide that. It was a great feeling to know that I had improved!"

After the summer fellowship ended, he moved into the Ellington Laboratory. "Ellington is a graduate lab," Nourani explains. "It was where I was exposed to current research practices and cutting edge research. Working in this lab made research a certainty in my future." It also turned Nourani's research toward melanoma diagnostics, the topic he discussed in his podium presentation. "I am passionate about diagnostic research. Through my research, I realized how important diagnostics are and that they are underused."

The following summer, Nourani earned another summer fellowship, this time from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (C-PRIT). "It was a huge opportunity for me. I wanted to stay in Austin at the Ellington Lab over the summer and this was the funding I needed to do that. At first, I couldn't find any grants, so I just committed to staying anyway. I sent the application out after I made the commitment and was excited and relieved to have the funding to stay. It was a risk worth taking. It was a great summer. Every day I got up and went to work in the lab for the whole day."

Kitchen Science for Beginners

While having an all-day focus on research was a dream come true, Nourani found that he needed a shift in concentration for his off hours. When he wasn't in the lab that summer, he was enjoying his first apartment and having access to his own kitchen. "I was introduced to cooking by watching YouTube videos," he laughs, describing his fascination with a pizza-making segment that captured his imagination.

"I wasn't exposed to cooking growing up. I was raised by a busy single mother, so ours was more of a frozen-food-type house," he says. "I was so inspired by this pizza video that the whole summer if I wasn't in the lab, I was back at home trying to cook up something. I really became passionate about it. I never expected to be in love with cooking, particularly since I didn't start off very good."

Unfortunately, after gaining some ground in the kitchen, it was time to head back to the dorms in the fall. Now Nourani uses term breaks to improve his culinary skills. "Every time I go home to Dallas, I try to cook something for my mom and brother," he says, explaining that during his Thanksgiving break, he made an awe-inspiring pecan pie. "The downside of cooking is that you know what goes into it. I knew how much butter was in the crust, for example. I told them we could only have very small slices!"

He likes making meals out of whatever's available in the fridge, and his goal is to make food that is both tasty and healthy. "In a lot of ways I think cooking, science and research are the same. You start off with an idea and you experiment to perfect it," Nourani continues, adding that his next goal is to try out a spiralizer, a device that turns fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, zucchinis or cucumbers, into long, thin noodles.

Finding a Community

Nourani approaches most of life with the same sort of enthusiasm, regardless of the topic. The four days he spent at SLAS2015 are no exception. "I was able to talk to so many people. I thought they might not be as open to share, but it was the exact opposite," he relates. "The other conference participants were interested in my work and interesting and supportive to talk with." Many offered input and praise to the young scholar.

The University of Texas at Austin SLAS2015 Tony B. Academic Travel Award winners Vincent Huynh (left) and Nourani (right) with UT alumni Nan Hallock, SLAS director, publishing.

The University of Texas at Austin SLAS2015 Tony B. Academic Travel Award winners Vincent Huynh (left) and Nourani (right) with UT alumni Nan Hallock, SLAS director, publishing.

"I learned about so many aspects of science and research that I had never even heard of before, ideas that I could use to improve my research. From that initial interaction, I feel supported already. It is the community that I was hoping for," he says.

As a bonus to his SLAS2015 attendance, Nourani also had an opportunity to select a free SLAS Short Course through the Tony B. award. He attended "Introduction to the Derivation and Maintenance of Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells."

"Prior to taking this course, I had only a basic understanding of what a stem cell was," he explains. "I really had no idea how they were used, why they were important, how to deal with them, etc. In taking the course, however, my understanding of stem cells really sky rocketed! It was my first time spending the whole day just learning about a single scientific subject, so it was extremely useful in providing me with concise and concentrated information. I think it was an excellent opportunity and it was one of the side benefits of the Tony B. award that helped make the conference experience at SLAS as enriching as possible!"

While he sees his future in research, the biochemistry major is determined to keep the open mindset that led him into research in the first place. "These labs not only showed me what research was, but helped me fall in love with it," Nourani concludes. "I want to see what pathways there are into the field that might capture my interest or motivate me."

June 15, 2015