My Education Week: Milad Alucozai – Mitchell scholar, scientist, entrepreneur
George J Mitchell scholar Milad Alucozai is doing his master’s in immunology and global health at Maynooth University. His busy week involves lectures, meetings, prayer and more than 1,000 emails
Approaching biotech differently: Milad Alucozai, a Mitchell scholar in Maynooth University, is from the US and of Afghan background. Photograph: Alan Betson
Milad Alucozai is doing a master’s in immunology and global health at Maynooth University through the George J Mitchell Scholarship Programme, a scholarship sponsored by the US-Ireland Alliance. He wants to be a blend of scientist, entrepreneur and humanitarian. This is an example of a week in his life.
The alarm goes off at 5.30am, signalling the start to my day. As a Muslim, I pray five obligatory prayers, the earliest at dawn, so I’m always awake by 5.30am. I try to spend parts of my day reading the Koran and watching Islamic lectures, as well as keeping up with the literature around neuroimmunology. My favourite reading is from TechCrunch and Forbes. This morning I read about Martin Shrekli, a controversial biotech entrepreneur who has made headlines for increasing his drug price by 5,000 per cent.
This morning I make oatmeal pancakes from scratch using my friend Julian’s recipe. I still haven’t figured out how to measure servings and make more than I can eat, but is I have lovely flatmates to share with. Then I head to the gym nearby. A healthy mind and body is critical to handle random things life throws at me, like getting used to the Irish weather. Thankfully, I am mastering dressing in layers to prepare for a day that may involve all four seasons.
Today I have two lectures, then I go to the official opening of a new campus building – to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers. The building is for applied research, translational work and to encourage entrepreneurship, which strikes a chord with me. I know first-hand about translating basic research into commercial reality. At Purdue I invented four lab-based technologies and was involved in numerous start-ups across different fields and technologies.
As a master’s student in immunology and global health, I have a set timetable with lectures, lab practicals, seminars and a research thesis. I chose this programme because of its award-winning reputation, research areas, new focus on neuroimmunology and drug development, the mix of hard science and global health courses and the unique research thesis. We had a seminar where European researchers talked about their work. The focus was on metabolism and I introduced Dr Fiona McGillicuddy, who is at the forefront of the field and spoke about finding novel solutions for obesity.
Today is a big deal for Symmetry Therapeutics, a biotech company I co-founded with Jon Brestoff Parker and Thomas H Reynolds to translate novel therapeutics into the metabolic disease market. Our lead therapeutic compound, SYM401, is a potent anti-obesity agent. In pre-clinical studies, we have shown that it decreases fat mass by 50 per cent in as little as one month. I spend most my non-class time working on Symmetry.
We turned down lucrative offers to instead try to approach biotech differently. As co-founders, we put our own money on the line and reached to the public to crowdfund the start-up (and surpassed our goal). Our campaign was less about money than engagement. We now have a growing community of more than 100 people interested in working with Symmetry to tackle obesity.
Our values of community engagement, accountability, and transparency contrast with the biotech companies who hike drug prices overnight to prioritise profits over patients. We believe it’s time for biotech companies to change their relationships with the people they aim to serve, and hope to act as a model for others to follow.
After my classes wrap up, I visit the CoderDojo headquarters in Dublin. The wonderful non-profit gets kids aged seven to 17 into coding and Stem. My two younger sisters run CoderDojoAnvil in West Lafayette, one of the largest dojos. I realise talking to Giustina Mizzon and Mary Moloney at CoderDojo that social entrepreneurship and disruptive educational change are the backbone of their growing success. I plan to volunteer at a few dojos in Ireland.
Afterwards, I meet the other Mitchell scholars for a reception at Google HQ to meet supporters of the US-Ireland Alliance and past and current scholars. Later we chat over pizza. The scholars all have their own distinct narratives and career goals, but we get along well. The selection process picks the brightest students, but also those with positive energy.
Although I’ve known them for a short while, I’m already close to many of them and amazed at what they have accomplished. I have spent time with Rishi Ahuja, studying economics, Sasha Seymore, specialising in conflict transformation and social justice and also playing basketball for the Belfast Star, Gavin Landgrafa, who is studying natural resource economics and policy and Stephen Sechler, who is studying bioengineering. We are following separate academic programmes all over Ireland but we occasionally get together informally and also plan to travel together while we’re here.
Friday is my favourite day. I only have two classes and then I’m free all afternoon. For Muslims, Fridays are special because of our weekly prayer, Jummah, where we congregate with other Muslims at about 1pm at a place of worship and listen to a sermon and pray together. I’ve been leading sermons targeted at English-speaking Muslims, on topics relevant to students such as time management, creating a syllabus for Islamic worship, being model students, and ultimately being proud of being Muslim.
Muslims around the world face backlash from terrorists. People of all religions need to show solidarity against evil. Like other Muslims I’m shocked and saddened so many civilians have been killed and injured in violent attacks. To the cowards behind all these attacks who claim to practise Islam, this is what Allah says about their crimes: “Whoever kills an innocent person it is as if he has killed all of humanity.”
Later I hook up with the other Mitchell scholars to meet Rory Montgomery, the permanent representative of Ireland to the EU, at the Taoiseach’s office. We had lots of questions and he gave very candid answers.
That night I go to the theatre. I’ve recently been trying to use the power of the arts to convey messages that transcend anything I could tell with words on paper.
I’m part of Living on One, a non-profit production and impact studio that uses immersive storytelling to create films to inspire action around global issues. I met founder Chris Temple at a humanitarian technology conference and we became friends. From living in a tent in a Syrian refugee camp to working as a radish farmer for $1 a day in Guatemala, Chris and his co-founder Zach are pioneering a new style of documentary filmmaking. I’m working with our team to screen our feature-length documentary – Salam Neighbour, about the refugee crisis in Syria – in Dublin.
The Mitchell group go on a hike from Bray to Greystones. The weather was nice, people we ran into were kind and I enjoyed the scenic route. I have tried to hike a different area in Ireland every week, not a challenge with a country filled with scenic areas, but fingers crossed, we get more good weather. Later back in Maynooth, I discover my room-mates are having a small party, and I can’t say no to good food and company.
I try my best to have one day a week to rest and play catch-up. Sunday is my email and planning day. I go through all my personal and business emails, which are asking for advice, offering business opportunities, or class-project related. I try to plan for the week to put my mind at ease. Most importantly, I check in with friends and family in America. Later I head into Dublin to visit a few local mosques. It is always nice to meet other Muslims and Dublin is a great magnet for different people. miladalucozai.com
The George J Mitchell Scholarship Programme is a competitive scholarship sponsored by the US-Ireland Alliance, to introduce and connect future American leaders to the island of Ireland, while recognising and fostering intellectual achievement, leadership and community and public service. Up to 12 Mitchell scholars aged 18-30 spend an academic year in postgraduate study in any discipline offered by Irish colleges. us-irelandalliance.org
This week I was . . .
Reading: Janeway’s Immunology textbook
Receiving and sending: More than 1,000 emails.
Cooking: Lamb stew, thanks to Nick’s amazing recipe.
Watching: Doctor Who (my favourite TV show).