The year 2020 has been extremely challenging for the world at large. Like lot of other job areas, it had special implications for students and trainees in science. In addition to the obvious fear about the unknown virus, the inability to perform regular lab experiments due to the lockdown and uncertainty about future funding or job security left everyone in a state of dilemma about their futures.
These uncertain times called for 'Unusual Heroes' to step-up and provide help, assurance and guidance to their teams. One such 'Hero' has been Dr. Irfan Rahman, a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Pulmonary Diseases and Critical Care at URMC.
Dr. Rahman recruited human volunteers (smokers and vapers) constantly during the pandemic period after the pause to continue the ongoing studies funded by the NIH. This allowed our lab members to continue the studies on Covid19 susceptibility, which led to generating data for publications and NIH grant submissions.
It was the brave and unrelenting efforts by Dr. Rahman to constantly provide us biospecimens during the pandemic time to study the susceptibility factors for better understanding of Covid-19 infection.
Dr. Rahman has held several honors and accolades to attest his merit even prior to this pandemic. He is ranked as the 16th Respiratory Medicine Researcher in the world (Plos Biology). His expertise in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Fibrosis, Asthma, and Acute Lung Injury due to environmental toxicants is highly acclaimed locally and internationally. His lab has been well-funded by the National Institutes of Health (NHLBI, NIEHS, NCI, NIDA) with over 16 grants to his credit to date. Dr. Rahman has been recognized as the pioneer of oxidative stress-mediated lung injury due to tobacco smoke exposure. He is the Director of the Center for Inhalation and Flavoring Toxicological Research at URMC, a specialized facility with state-of-the-art technology and instruments dedicated to research related to e-cigarette-use and vaping associated lung injury. Dr. Rahman has a prolific career with over 400 publications (h-index 102; Google Scholar) and his trainees and students publish over 10 publications each year in highly recognized scientific journals such as JCI, JEV, PNAS, Nature, AJRCCM, Journal of immunology under his mentorship.
However, what was impressive was he kept pushing the envelope during the pandemic as well, reassuring his entire team and making them feel productive. Consequently, despite many setbacks, last year had many moments for the Rahman lab to cherish and celebrate professionally. Considering his expertise in pulmonary research, he stepped up to the need-of-the-hour and put his team to work on COVID-19 and its health implications on smokers and e-cigarette users. In fact, his efforts and research findings were lauded by the University of Rochester and he was featured in the University news several times last year (https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/labs/rahman/news.aspx). One of his postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Gagandeep Kaur showcased her work on susceptibility to COVID-19 in tobacco smokers as a Guest Speaker for a webinar organized by IRSS at Society of Toxicology, gaining national and international recognition. This shows that Dr. Rahman prefers to showcase his team's abilities more than his own to help them shine and excel in their careers. He has provided his postdoctoral trainees with opportunities to be guest speakers for national webinars, teach courses and be a guest lecturer at other universities as a part of their overall training.
As the mentor of five postdoctoral fellows currently and various others in the past, he has shown immense enthusiasm for sharing his expertise in pulmonary toxicology to help his team succeed to be better prepared for the next stage in their careers. Many of his former trainees, Drs. Yao and Sundar, are now well-established faculty members in reputed Universities such as Brown University and the University of Kansas with their own R01 grants. Others have gained successful employment in industry and regulatory agencies.
Adding to the list of accomplishments last year, a current postdoctoral fellow at Dr. Rahman's lab, Dr. Qixin Wang, has been highlighted in AJRCMB in December 2020 for his research on transgenerational prenatal e-cig exposure. Dr. Rahman has mentored his postdoctoral fellows, such as Drs. Thivanka Muthumalage and Qixin Wang to prepare for their careers as young scientists by guiding them with unwavering support for their recently awarded pilot projects (2019-2021) as well as K99/R00 (NIH pathway to independence Award) which they submitted earlier this year. As a graduate student mentor in the Department of Environmental Medicine, he has shared the responsibilities of guiding graduate students and helping them to be successful in their research interests and projects. Thomas Lamb, one of his mentored grad-students, has won the best poster award at the CROFT annual meeting in 2020. Further, Dr. Rahman is also helping at the local societal level to recognize the risk of e-cig vaping by providing lectures at high schools by participating in outreach programs.
All the post-docs are involved in collaborative projects, which assists in their team building and networking skills Our post-doctoral fellows, Drs. Muthumalage, Wang, and Kaur have worked on collaborative projects with other institutes such as the NY Department of Health, NYU, SUNY, and UCLA. The postdocs and graduate students in Rahman's lab are encouraged to participate in national and international conferences, including the Society of Toxicology (SOT), the American Thoracic Society (ATS), Experimental Biology, the Society of Research in Nicotine and Tobacco (SRNT) annual meetings. Considering the betterment of his students, all the members in the lab were encouraged to participate in most of the virtual meetings last year which added a bit of normalcy to an otherwise tumultuous year. It was also uplifting as many of us got recognized (win awards) for our presentations and were able to interact with our peers all across the country to get feedback on our work. Current postdocs mentored by Dr. Rahman have achieved a new height in their career. Gagandeep Kaur. Ph.D., current postdoc supervised by Dr. Rahman, has won the Inhalation and Respiratory Specialty Section (IRSS) best postdoc award (2021) as well as the poster award at Center for Research on Flavored Tobacco (CROFT) annual meeting (2020), within a year of gaining his mentorship.
Dr. Rahman encourages the post-docs to review scientific papers and has one-on-one discussions with them to help them build their scientific acumen and providing them with insights that only years of experience could guarantee. However, during the pandemic he upped his effort by holding regular lab meetings discussing recent literature, previous results and future strategies with the team. Many of the students and post-docs were encouraged to review literature and complete the still pending manuscripts during this time. Owing to his constant encouragement, we published 20 articles in reputed journals last year. His mentored undergraduate students have excelled and have secured their medical school admissions at prestigious institutes such as Harvard and Duke. Our lab has always welcomed students and trainees of color and minorities with the highest respect, collegiality, and professionalism. Dr. Rahman is empathetic and helpful for the needs of his team and accommodates their concerns to maintain an environment of respect and discipline in the lab while ensuring success for all. He is always available to help juniors and learners and provides honest feedback to help them excel.
Ioannidis JPA, Boyack KW, Baas J (2020) Updated science-wide author databases of standardized citation indicators. PLoS Biol 18(10): e3000918. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000918