The Interesting Life of Osama Ahmed

Entering the cafe, he was warmly greeted (“Sama!!”) by a neighborhood friend. Their brief exchange prefigured what would soon become apparent about Sama and the trajectory of his life and times at Penn: his loyalty to the West Philadelphia community that is his family’s home; his strong and abiding friendships; and his profound respect for the mentors who have helped him shape his academic career.

Sama was a member of the 264th graduating class of Philadelphia’s Central High, a magnet school with an outstanding reputation and one of the oldest high schools in the country. Smiling broadly when asked about early academic influences, he right away fired off the name of his freshman science teacher at Central, Mr. Erlick. No doubt spotting Sama’s vibrant curiosity and aptitude for the sciences, Dennis Erlick recommended him for a summer research apprenticeship at the Monell Chemical Senses Center at 35th and Market.

It was a perceptive call; Sama has been at Monell ever since. Mentored there by sensory scientist Paul Breslin (“the most influential person in my life,” Sama says), he has been involved part-time in various studies on the genetic basis of taste and nutrition in humans and Drosophila melanogaster, “the elegant fruit fly.”

As time to look at colleges drew near, Sama’s application process was driven by “personal and social” criteria. “I’m from an immigrant family and didn’t want to break it up,” he explained. Along with his parents, two brothers (one at Drexel), a sister, and a strong network of friends, he would stay in Philly. Penn, of course, was an obvious choice and, once accepted, he enrolled at the School of Engineering and Applied Science as a bioengineering major in the fall of 2005.

Always at the ready for new adventures, Sama was just settling in at SEAS when he began preparing for a trip to South China with the Penn Engineering Global Biomedical Service (GBS) in the summer of 2006. (See Penn Engineering News, Fall 2006.) Bioengineering professor Dan Bogen, who led the group, was immediately impressed with Sama’s “genuine interest and enjoyment in getting to know people who are different from himself ” and his willingness to meet all aspects of the experience “head on.” As the group’s only freshman, he had to work a little harder and smarter. Alongside more experienced students from Penn and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, they designed and crafted prosthetic limbs for six Chinese amputees. For Sama, the memory of the trip is indelible; he says hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

It was in Computational Neuroscience that Sama’s longtime fascination with the “magic of the brain” crystallized. Combining training in neural computation with experimental neuroscience, it was Sama’s all-time favorite class. He cites the research, counsel, and career paths of Monell researcher Alan Gelperin and Penn Bioengineering Professors Brian Litt and the late Leif Finkel as highly inspiring. A Ph.D. program is most definitely in Sama’s future, as is presiding over his own lab “sooner rather than later.” He envisions directing investigations of the brain, combining behavioral, genetic, and computational work—“really bouncing off of my experiences at Penn and Monell.”

Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, "The Interesting Life of Osama Ahmed," Patricia Hutchings.

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