Capstone Fellow Reflects on Her Journey to a Ph.D. and Career in Food Microbiology

Feb. 27, 2020

The ASM Research Capstone Fellowship provides up to $2,000 for underrepresented minority students with accepted ASM Microbe abstracts to attend the meeting, as well as the preceding ASM Microbe Academy for Professional Development (MAPD). It's a great way to pave your path towards a successful career in science, so apply by March 15!
Building a career in science takes hard work and commitment, but also requires passion and vision. Dr. Zahra Mohammad shares her story, from her interest in science as a child, to becoming a postdoc at the University of Houston. Mohammad reflects on her experience as an ASM Research Capstone Fellow and shares how her passion for food microbiology blossomed into a career. 

Journey to a Career in Food Safety Research

From an early age, Mohammad was interested in the problem-solving aspect of science. When she was first introduced to microbiology and molecular biology as a master’s student, she was excited about the possibility of detecting and manipulating microorganisms. Her attraction to microbiology research grew over the years, and as she learned about the complexity of microbes and the significant need for new interventions for counteracting bacterial and viral risks, Mohammad found her passion.

After she completed her master’s program, Mohammad decided to further her academic career by pursuing a Ph.D. She knew that a Ph.D. would teach her how to contribute new knowledge to the field, perform independent research and mentor undergraduate and graduate students. Getting a Ph.D. would also get Mohammad one step closer to becoming a food safety expert.

When Mohammad was in her master’s program, she applied heat treatments to control pathogenic bacteria in foods and the environment. During her Ph.D., she found a new way to detect Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli and Salmonella in the air of commercial slaughter plants. She was able to quantitatively and qualitatively indicate the presence of pathogens in the air using an immunoassay-based automated method called Crystal Diagnostic and a molecular-based method called real-time PCR. The results from her study raised awareness in the meat industry of the risks of airborne pathogens and helped enhance sanitation programs to promote the safety and quality of meat products.

How the ASM Capstone Fellowship Helped 

While in graduate school, Mohammad applied to the ASM Research Capstone Fellowship. As part of the fellowship, she attended the Microbe Academy for Professional Development workshop, which helped her develop networking, communication and writing skills. These skills later helped Mohammad in drafting her job application materials. 

In addition, the ASM Research Capstone Fellowship helped her attend two ASM Microbe meetings. At ASM Microbe, she had the chance to learn more about foodborne diseases, including challenges the food industry is facing today. Mohammad exchanged research ideas with other professionals in the field and learned about new technologies to help her analyze samples more efficiently. She also attended a training program specific to food microbiology that gave her the tools to create a food safety kit for food service employees. 

The network she developed at ASM Microbe later helped her find food microbiologist positions. Mohammad now works as a Food Microbiology, Safety and Extension Specialist at the University of Houston. She plans to continue working as a food microbiologist and aspires to become a worldwide-recognized food microbiology, safety and public health expert, while leading a new generation to understand the risk of microorganisms.

Tips for Future Graduate Students

For students considering graduate school, Mohammad encourages you to apply for any opportunities that will help you advance your career. Additionally, Mohammad recommends that you think critically and wisely, work hard towards your goals, be precise in your career pursuit and always remember that people depend on your research for their health.

Author: Shaundra Holmes

Shaundra Holmes
Shaundra Holmes is a Program Coordinator at ASM.