OU student Sarah Denha travels to Marine Biological Laboratory


Photo courtesy of Oakland University News

Doctoral student Sarah Denha travelled to Massachusetts over the summer to participate in a neurobiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory. She was one of 18 students accepted into the course.

Tanner Trafelet, Contributor

As reported by Oakland University News,  Sarah Denha ‒‒ an OU doctoral student studying biomedical sciences ‒‒ traveled to Massachusetts over the summer to participate in one of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL)’s neurobiology courses. 

Iraqi by birth, Denha immigrated with her family to the United States in 2013. Denha lived in California for a year where she earned her GED diploma, before moving to Michigan in 2014 and enrolling at Macomb Community College shortly after. She then transferred to OU where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. 

Five years later, she enrolled in OU’s master’s degree program in chemistry, and in 2020, she changed her area of study to biomedical sciences. It was after this flurry of academic decisions that Denha found herself in a position to participate in the MBL course titled “Neurobiology: Mechanisms and Advanced Approaches.” A five week course, Denha was one of the 18 selected students who collected data, engaged in experiments and presented their work in various neurobiological fields. 

Having received funding from OU and the Grass Foundation ‒‒ a not-for-profit foundation centered on facilitating research of neuroscience ‒‒ Denha also discussed the importance of OU Biochemistry Professor Dr. Adam Avery’s assistance in developing her academic goals. 

“I had no research experience (before graduate school), but with Dr. Avery’s mentoring and one-to-one interaction, I learned fast,” Denha told Oakland University News. “I gained so much confidence and within a year I presented my work [on spinocerebellar ataxia type 5] at the international American Society for Cell Biology Conference. I did virtual conferences during COVID and met others who are interested in my area of research. Dr. Avery encouraged me to apply for the Marine Biological Laboratory course, which helped me make more connections and see opportunities after I finish my Ph.D.” 

Denha and Dr. Avery have worked together outside of their research on spinocerebellar ataxia type 5 ‒‒ Denha was  featured as a co-author on Avery’s 2021 article which was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry

In the MBL course instructed by faculty from Yale University and UC Berkeley ‒‒ which also had a Zoom guest lecture from 2003 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Roderick MacKinnon ‒‒ Avery believed that Denha found experiences that positively affected her development as a person and scholar. 

“Sarah has been a great success story,” Dr. Avery told Oakland University News. “She’s worked hard and embraced opportunities to grow in her field. I think being accepted into an exclusive, high-caliber program like the MBL course really shows her potential as a scientist. She had the chance to learn from top scientists in the world and came away with a renewed sense of identity and purpose.”

With work ranging from NIH-funded examinations into spinocerebellar ataxia type 5’s effect on gene mutations to experiments using electrophysiology to do a field electrical recording of a mouse’s hippocampal neurons, Denha is drawn to academic life wholeheartedly. The pursuit of gaining a more complete understanding of the molecular underpinnings of neurological disease is what drives her. 

“I love the novelty of research,” said Denha. “I love the challenge of looking at data and trying to figure out what it means. And I love knowing that my work has the power to positively impact people’s lives.”