Hamid Akbarali, Ph.D.

This month’s Mentor of the Month conversation highlights the mentor-mentee relationship of Dr. Hamid Akbarali and Stanley Cheatham. As Vice Chair and Director of the Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Training Program in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Dr. Akbarali serves as an invaluable resource to his students.

(COHD) How did you begin your biomedical research career?

(HA) I was influenced by one of my high school teachers and she sort of guided me towards the idea of what pharmacology is all about. Until then I really didn’t know what it was as most students don’t. I started as an undergraduate at the University of London in England where I studied pharmacology. I took a year off and worked in industry in a German Pharmaceutical Company, HOECHST. It was a 1 year internship and I wrote my thesis on a compound that affects gastric acid secretion.

(COHD) What is the ultimate goal of your research?

(HA) I am focused on the effects of opioids. There is a current opioid crisis and we need to find better drugs to treat pain, but also understand how addiction occurs. We are looking at strategies to treat the side effects of opioids of which a major side effect is being constipated.

New drugs need to be developed to treat pain because opioids are the best pain relievers, but they are also addictive and they have abuse liability. They also produce side effects and may cause death.

A few of my goals are to:

  1. Find out why so many people overdose;

  2. How can we can prevent that overdose?

  3. Can we prevent tolerance development?


Dr. Akbarali and Stanley Cheatham examining poster

(COHD) In looking at your mentees, what do you wish you knew at their stage of their careers?

(HA) Having a mentor is probably the most important thing. In my case I’ve just been lucky to have had great mentors. Motivation is probably the biggest factor. It’s an exciting job to do research. I’ve always loved it. I think self-motivation is important. The student has to have fire in the belly to be successful. Mentors are very critical because that’s what turns you on but having good colleagues, peers, having a peer group is important for us. They need good peer support. Setting up an environment is really the critical key.

Dr. Akbarali and Stanley Cheatham in lab

(COHD) Describe the ideal mentor/mentee relationship.

(HA) I’m not sure there is such a thing. For every mentee, it’s got to be different. It’s not a cookie cutter thing. Each mentee has a different perspective, has different issues, and so the onus is on the mentor to mold themselves to develop that relationship to some extent. Mutually, of course, the mentee also has to have that. If they have that fire in the belly it will develop on its own. Being a good listener is important; I think that’s critical. Being assertive from the mentor to be sure that the mentee does understand that it’s a relationship that can evolve from being mentor/mentee, could be a friendship that can evolve over time. It’s not always going to be the same.

Hamid Ackbarali and Stanley Cheatham looking at a scientific poster

Stanley Cheatham

Stanley Cheatham, a senior in biology, has been a scholar in the VCU IMSD Undergraduate (IMSD) program since June 2018. Joining the IMSD program has allowed Stanley to develop his skills as a researcher culminating in his first oral presentation titled “Experimental Colitis-Induced Depression of Behavior of Nesting in Mice” at the 2018 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in Indianapolis, IN. Stanley is looking at pain depressed nesting behavior. 

(COHD) What have been some of the benefits in working with a mentor?

(SC) This is my first lab experience outside of my class labs, so I didn’t know what to expect. Dr. Akbarali and also JC Jacobs, who was one of my first mentors when I first entered the lab, they’ve helped me understand how to think. There is a certain way a scientist thinks and how to ask the correct questions and what questions would follow from the given results.

(COHD) Is it what you expected?

(SC) I don’t know if I knew what to expect from a lab, like a real research lab, but It has been a positive experience.

(COHD) Tell us about your experiment.

(SC) I’m looking at pain depressed nesting behavior. So what we do is we induce colitis, which is the inflammation of the colon, through a chemical known as TNBS. So one of the things that mice like to do is nest. It’s an innate behavior so we can measure changes in this. By inducing inflammation it’s a model for pain so we can compare that to a normal mouse and its behavior nesting. In our lab specifically we’re using morphine so we’re looking at opioids and want to determine the effect of that morphine on that TNBS depressed or pain depressed mouse and its ability to either help that mouse out or hinder its ability to nest.

(COHD) So you induce pain and then try to treat it and check all the details as you go along? How long a time frame?

(SC) Well, the current paradigm we’ve been using, first we had to determine how long it would take for a mouse to return to a normal nesting behavior once we induce that inflammation. We found out that takes a period of seven days to return to normal. Once we found that out we decided to give morphine every day to see if that would improve that ability, so it’s a seven day test.

(COHD) So that’s pretty fast in terms of human experiences?

(HA) It’s an acute effect. It’s not something that we are looking at as a chronic disease state. It’s an acute disease state.

(COHD) How many mice do you do this with?

(SC) I usually do it in cohorts of six, but I lost count of the total number. It’s been a lot.

(COHD) What have you learned thus far?

(SC) I’ve learned a lot. It’s really a broad question. I’ve learned proper lab procedures, how to handle mice. Also because I’ve had to present, I’ve had to write a paper about the research I’ve done thus far, so reading different articles and finding sites that support the evidence that I’ve found in my experiments has been a valuable experience for me.

(COHD) How long have you been in this role?

(SC) I started last June, so almost a year now.

(COHD) How do you compare yourself as a scientific thinker from now to when you first started?

(SC) When I first started I would say that I didn’t really know how to ask questions. Well, I knew how to ask questions. I just didn’t know what questions would follow up from it. Also from my quick questions with Dr. Akbarali every day I figured out how his mind thinks and where he wants to see the experiment go.

(COHD) So you think you’re beginning to think like a scientist now?

(SC) I’m getting there. Definitely. Especially as it relates to what I am doing right now because we’ve had a question just recently.

(COHD) Am I correct in assuming you may change your hypothesis as the experiment goes along and you see things happen?

(SC) Yeah definitely, because I was seeing tolerance giving morphine every day and I’m not seeing tolerance in that same TNBS depressed mouse. It doesn’t add up.

(COHD) Have you grown as a researcher as a result of working with your mentor?

(HA) I would say that you’ve started thinking independently. That’s one thing. You can now design your own experiments.

(COHD) Where are you from?

(SC) I’m from Richmond as well. Henrico High School for the IB Program there.