With his graduation, Al-Hamedi turns his attention to the chemistry of the universe Nebraska today

With his graduation, Al-Hamedi turns his attention to the chemistry of the universe  Nebraska today

“To reach new heights and uncover the unknown so that what we do and learn benefits all of humanity.”

These words – NASA’s vision or doctrine – carry a powerful meaning for Sakina Al-Hamedi.

They have been a guiding light for biochemistry graduates.

“Maybe it was even more of a realization than others down to earth “Disciplines can still lead me to new horizons and uncover the unknown, so that what I do and learn can be useful to all of humanity,” Al-Hamidi wrote in an application for one of the many programs she is involved in with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

During her years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Alhamdi completed four NASA-related programs: a Career Development Fellowship, two NASA L’SPACE project-based courses, and a Research Assistantship in Space Science Education.

After the graduation ceremony on December 16, Al-Hamedi will set her sights on studying chemistry — the building blocks of the world and beyond — in graduate school, with the goal of studying the chemical origins of life.

Born in Lincoln, Al-Hamidi’s path was shaped a bit by chance. When she was a high school student, her love of science was fostered, and she thought she would be a pre-med student and eventually complete medical school.

But her first few classes and laboratory experiments at Nebraska, including UCARE research and her work under the supervision of Amanda Ramer Tate, the Maxcy Professor of Food Science and Technology, opened up new possibilities for scientific discovery.

“I actually decided to work in a lab because I was in pre-med, and medical schools look at research experience,” Al-Hamidi said. “After seeing that there were more facets to science than what I was exposed to in high school, I became more interested in research.”

Al-Hamidi dropped the phrase “pre-med” from her CV, and began adding expertise in a new subject, astrobiology.

Al-Hamidi admits that the field that studies the origins, distributions, and future of life in the universe seems a little out there, but she defines it simply as the study of how biology, chemistry, and other disciplines work together to study life on Earth and other planets alike.

“A lot of people tend to think of space exploration as a career centered around engineering or physics,” she said, adding that she once had that perception as well. “But biology and chemistry are also involved in space science.”

An opportunity listed in an email newsletter began to define a potential career path for her. It was a call for applications for the NASA-Nebraska Space Grant Introduction Fellowship. Al-Hamidi seized the opportunity and advanced.

“I thought, ‘Why not?’” she said. “It was one of those things, where you have to seize opportunities that come to you, even if you don’t think you’re qualified, or they don’t align with your goal. You never know what the outcome will be.”

The fellowship focused mostly on career development, and the 20 selected students met virtually and explored a variety of career possibilities at NASA, culminating with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, where Al-Hamedi was able to meet NASA biologists, chemists and engineers. This exploration fostered her interest in one day working in the space science industry.

“Biology and chemistry are very intertwined with environmental science,” she said. “A lot of NASA’s missions involve studying Earth’s environment, but I’ve also met some people working on new studies, for example, learning how microgravity affects plant growth. “There are a lot of possibilities that you don’t realize exist until someone tells you about them.”

Al-Hamedi went on to apply for NASA’s L’SPACE program, or Lucy Student Pipeline Accelerator and Competency Enabler, and earned a spot in both classes for 2022. In the L’SPACE program, she worked in interdisciplinary teams to design space mission and peer-review grant proposals. The experiments showed how the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics complement each other in NASA missions, and how Al-Hamidi’s research interests align.

“Through all these experiences, I was able to find many bridges between disciplines that on the surface seem very different from each other,” she said. “I found connections between what I studied, what my colleagues studied, and how interdisciplinarity spreads innovation.”

She also began working as a teaching assistant in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, while continuing her studies in biochemistry and laboratory work in the Gnotobiotic Mouse Program at Nebraska.

While counting her successes, including graduating with high distinction, when she thinks back on her college career, the experience that surfaces as her favorite is her work with the Office of New Student Registration as an International Student Orientation Leader.

“I have worked with over 200 international students. “I have met so many people, and it was the first thing I did after the coronavirus lockdown,” she said. “It was a completely new experience.”

She also enjoyed sharing her ideas with high school-age girls as a guest speaker, opportunities that arose from her NASA fellowship.

“Girls often ask about diversity in STEM, and how to overcome difficulties, from impostor syndrome and relationships between family and friends to grief and unexpected life events. “We also show that science fields are not just one specific thing,” she added. You know something about science, but there is so much more to it once you immerse yourself in it. We wanted to motivate them to pursue their passion for science, and emphasize that they can still become successful women despite the difficulties.

As a December graduate, Al-Hamidi has to take a break while she waits for a series of decisions she will make this spring regarding graduate school in the fall. She knows she will study chemistry, but she also sees that a world—no, a universe—of scientific discovery is possible.

“That’s the wonderful thing about chemistry,” she said. “It’s so broad and there are so many things you can do with it, and they’re all equally interesting to me. I’ve really found an interest in everything. It’s like our motto in the College of Arts and Sciences, ‘Let curiosity move you,’ and that’s what I’m going to do.”

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