It’s 4:00 a.m. The sun is snuggled sleepily behind the horizon, and even the birds are still snoozing. Dr. Soman Abraham, PhD, however, is already awake — and in fact, may have been awake for a full hour already, toiling away on papers and writing grant proposals. At 6:00 a.m., he takes a walk with his wife, and by 8:00, he’s in the lab, ready to spend the next ten and a half hours of his day there.
Such motivation to start his day at what many would consider an ungodly hour of the morning indicates that Dr. Abraham has found his passion in life. Was an academic career involved in researching mast cells something he always aspired to? Well, not exactly. Dr. Abraham began building his path to research at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, where his fascination with microorganisms and how they caused disease through processes invisible to the unaided eye led him to major in microbiology. From there, he went on to Newcastle University in England for his PhD, where he began studying the bacterium E. coli and its methods of attack in urinary tract infections (UTIs). It was at this point that Dr. Abraham, greatly influenced by his mentor at Newcastle, decided he wanted to pursue postdoctoral training, thus cementing his journey to a career in academics. After postdoc training at the University of Tennessee in Memphis, where he worked on developing a vaccine for UTIs, he traveled to Umeå University in northern Sweden for a year for further training with E.coli, this time focusing on their genetics. From there, he returned to the United States, where he went to Washington University in St. Louis to continue working on studying E. coli and vaccines for UTIs. Soon, however, his research would take a twist.
In 1995, while at WashU, Dr. Abraham was examining the tissue of infected mice when he happened to glimpse some mast cells around the area. He became curious about the mast cells, since, at the time, no one really knew much about them, other than the fact that they had been implicated in allergic reactions. After further observation, Dr. Abraham discovered that mast cells would release their granules (essentially small bundles full of enzymes) in response to bacterial invasion. In 1996, he published a paper on this topic that ended up Nature, a prestigious scientific journal, and cracked the field of study on mast cells wide open.
In 1997, Dr. Abraham came to Duke (hooray!), where his lab studies salmonella, yersinia pestis (the bacterium responsible for the bubonic plague, or “Black Death”), and the dengue virus, all in the context of mast cells. What does he enjoy most about research? Not working at the lab bench! His impatience with the tedious work of such things as pipetting and following protocols to the letter leads him to stay, for the most part, away from hoods and centrifuges. What he finds most enjoyable about research is the fact that he gets to consider questions that others have not addressed before, and enjoys coming up with new hypotheses and discussing them with others. It is this teamwork in puzzling out an idea that he finds most pleasurable. Additionally, he loves to mentor trainees, finding satisfaction in watching them develop and grow as scientists. His advice for novices in research? Always ask “why”: why is this being done? Why are we doing it like that? In Dr. Abraham’s opinion, there is no better way of proving your knowledge of a subject than being able to understand it well enough to translate it into layman’s terms. And that, of course, means asking questions.
Everyone has to start somewhere, just as Dr. Abraham did years ago, as an undergraduate who only knew he was interested in bacteria. Today, he teaches PhD students in multiple areas including pathology and immunology, is the director of graduate studies in pathology and the director of the Duke Summer Research Opportunity Program, and runs a lab not only at Duke, but also at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, where he likely continues to ask “why?” every day, continuing to stretch the boundaries of knowledge on mast cells and their potential in preventing disease.