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Ammara Aqeel headshot 2024

Ammara Aqeel is a PhD student in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology. She spoke with Duke I&E about her research, Duke’s innovation and entrepreneurship network, and how she has built an entrepreneurial mindset with the support of Duke I&E programs.

Tell us about your research and your goals for the future.

Believe it or not, my lab is famous as the poop lab at Duke. Dr. Lawrence David’s lab started out with a focus on the relationship between diet and the microbiome. However, one of the biggest hurdles in this research were the dietary assessment methods themselves. All established dietary data collection methods rely on self-reporting, like filling out a dietary survey or keeping a food diary. It is not hard to imagine all the limitations associated with such methods, foremost of those being the problem of misreporting due to memory error or under/over reporting certain foods. My lab realized that there was a more objective DNA-based dietary assessment method already being used in ecology to assess animal diets. In our own stroke of innovation, we adapted this method to humans as a novel dietary assessment technique that could reconstruct the species composition of someone’s diet from their stool samples!

Because traditional dietary assessment methods can be particularly challenging to implement in children, my research is specifically focused on examining the utility of this DNA-based dietary assessment for predicting health outcomes and socioeconomic features in children. These results will not only allow us to objectively assess diet on large community scales but also enable a standardized system for dietary comparison across vastly different regions and cultures.

In terms of future goals, one thing I have learned from my educational journey is that I love solving problems that have a real and immediate impact for society. At the same time, however, I want to create this impact in not just one field, but across a broad range of disciplines. For me, this has translated into an interest in both consulting, particularly life science consulting, and technology commercialization. And of course, I hope to one day feed my learnings into a startup of my own.

What led you to enroll in the Duke I&E Certificate program?

Before my PhD, I’d had a lot of different kinds of research experiences, from basic to clinical science and even working in a biomedical engineering lab for three years. What I saw across the board was that there is so much amazing research done in a lab, but it doesn’t always make it to the bedside or the market. Thinking about why that was the case, I realized that I actually had no insight into the process of commercializing research or even the basic process of making a company out of an idea. To be able to evaluate the commercial impact of the work I was involved in—and make maximum impact—I wanted to understand these processes better. That was what first led me to the certificate.

Considering your Duke I&E courses and experiences, what have been your most valuable takeaways?

The certificate has definitely given me all the insights I was hoping for, from getting to work with a Duke founder team on commercializing their medical device to getting my own hands wet with the early stages of coming up with an idea and vetting it in the field. However, my most valuable takeaways have been the things I have learned about myself through this process. As a PhD student, you are the pushing the boundaries of knowledge by addressing a particular question in your field. This requires an intellectual journey focused on depth rather than breadth. While you become an expert in your niche, you can also lose track of the knowledge and activity happening in other disciplines. Coming into the certificate, I realized that the skills I had developed during my PhD were not just good for my own research, but were much more broadly applicable than I had previously imagined. My research skills had also given me the ability to rapidly gain familiarity with disciplines completely new to me. These realizations provided a huge boost to my confidence in myself and my qualifications and helped me see that other disciplines were not necessarily closed to me just because of previous unfamiliarity. Ultimately, it led to a mindset shift, leading me to successfully pursue opportunities I wouldn’t have thought myself qualified for before and connect with people outside my field much more easily. Another thing I learned was to cultivate an entrepreneur’s mindset: you don’t discover opportunities, you just start seeing them because they are actually everywhere, just disguised as problems.

Considering the impact of your Duke I&E courses and experiences, has anything surprised you?

One thing that was surprising—and it honestly shouldn’t have been—was how many viable innovation ideas were not only coming out of my classroom experiences, but also being developed for the market in other classes. You sort of imagine, at least I did, that entrepreneurs are this different breed of people tinkering away in their garages, but no, they look like just you and me. In that way, it really solidified in my mind that entrepreneurship was a viable path forward for me.

In what ways has the Duke innovation and entrepreneurship network supported you?

The Duke I&E network has given me an amazing community of like-minded and incredibly talented peers, many of whom are also PhD students, outside of just my own department. It has been instrumental in expanding my network at Duke and making connections in the industry. I was able to connect with another PhD student in my very first I&E class, and we ended up starting a Medical Science Liaison club for PhD students in the School of Medicine interested in alternative careers and immediately saw a lot of interest from our fellow students. I was also exposed to opportunities I otherwise would not have become involved in, such as serving as a fellow at the Duke Office of Translation and Commercialization, where I get to see and assess cutting-edge research happening across Duke.