He may have left his bench for a desk and a corner office, but “I didn’t leave science!” insists Fanuel Muindi, MCB’s new Assistant Director of Graduate Programs as of January 2016. “I don’t think you can ever leave science,” he argues, “we’re all born scientists.”
“Fanuel has a dual passion for science and for mentorship of students in science,” as Professor Catherine Dulac, MCO director, testifies: “He has direct experience in both topics, being himself a former PhD student and postdoc and having conducted high-profile research. Moreover, he has given deep thought and published papers on how best to train and educate the next generation of scientists and help them jump through the many hurdles they may find on their way to a successful professional career, in or out of academia.” “We are extremely fortunate to have Fanuel join us as the new assistant director of the MCO program,” she affirms.
Fanuel earned his PhD at Stanford, working with H Craig Heller to investigate the retino-hypothalamic regulation of light-induced murine sleep. While light indirectly modulates sleep through its ability to phase shift and entrain the circadian clock, Fanuel was especially fascinated by light’s direct effects on sleep. How, for example, does acute exposure to light promote sleep in nocturnal animals and wake in diurnal animals? Fanuel’s research on the neural mechanisms whereby light directly influences sleep and arousal earned him publications in The European Journal of Neuroscience, Frontiers in Neuroscience, and PLoS One.
A week after defending his PhD, Fanuel arrived in Boston to join statistician-neuroscientist-anesthesiologist Dr. Emery Brown at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Fanuel’s postdoctoral project assessed the role of the brainstem’s Parabrachial Nucleus (PBN) in emergence from general anesthesia. So far, the mechanisms involved in emergence are not well understood and the role of the PBN is particularly obscure. After two years, Fanuel’s preliminary findings, published in Behavioural Brain Research, support the hypothesis that the PBN provides critical arousal input during emergence from isoflurane anesthesia.
While his bench work addressed concrete research questions, his mind and heart were increasingly drawn toward science philosophy: “What scientific questions are we asking?” he wondered, “How are we asking such questions? How are we inspiring and training the next generation of leaders in science?” And behind this curiosity and passion for the bigger picture loomed the question of his own career: “Do I want to continue on this path toward becoming faculty at a research-intensive university, or are there other opportunities that would allow me to tackle these questions about training in science?”
This gradual shift in perspective and trajectory was informed by years of involvement with community outreach and education programs as well as his personal experience as an international student and émigré.
Fanuel grew up in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where a fascination with planes kindled his scientific imagination. Fanuel attributes this inspiration to his parents, who indulged his and his brother’s mild obsession with the computer game Microsoft Flight Simulator 98, in which players calculate vectors and speed in order to pilot an aircraft from point A to point B. “My brother and I would play that game all day and all night,” he recalls, then “We’d go to the airport and spend hours watching planes land.”
Hoping to maximize his educational opportunities, Fanuel’s parents enrolled him in Ashville College, a boarding school in North Yorkshire, England. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like to send their 13-year-old so far away,” Fanuel reflects. “It was tough at first, but it was a challenge I needed and I am extremely grateful to them for taking the chance and sacrificing so much for me to go abroad.”
Fortunately, their sacrifice, and the welcome he received from his host family and peer tutors, allayed the anxieties he felt as a newcomer. “Giving back—or, rather, paying it forward—has always been a source of energy for me,” says Fanuel. Besides offering him a means to share and repay the opportunities he enjoyed, reciprocity and service have simply remained constants throughout his life.
As an undergraduate at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he tutored for the local Boys and Girls Club. Since moving to Boston he has mentored for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and still enjoys escorting his Little on lab tours and various other excursions around the city. At Stanford, Fanuel recruited graduate and undergraduate peers to “Run for Education,” and enrolled in the San Francisco marathon to raise money for local charter schools. (Alas, as a student organization, Run for Education was short lived, “mostly because of the running component, which not everybody could do…” he politely suggests, “but the idea was sound!”)
He served as chair of the Stanford Diversity Advocacy Committee and as a member of both graduate-student and postdoc associations at Stanford and MIT, all the while reflecting on the challenges facing academic and professional trainees in the biological sciences. “How do I play a role?” he continually asked himself, “How do I become a voice for change?”
The answer emerged from a series of intense discussions with his wife, Moytrayee Guha, about science education, global health, and how to make a difference in developing countries. Moytrayee, who works at the MGH Division of Global Health, challenged Fanuel to think globally about resource-limited settings; “My wife would continually remind me that students in developing countries have it tougher than those in the U.S.,” he explains. Their conversations inspired a letter, published in Nature, which proposed a global fund for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education similar to that established for global health. With their friends’ invaluable support, Fanuel and Moytrayee subsequently co-founded the STEM Advocacy Education Group, a think-tank committed to conducting high-quality analysis of and advocacy for science education initiatives around the world. STEM Advocacy maintains that education with a strong foundation in science is imperative for global economic growth, social advancement, and, ultimately, global peace.
The group’s most recent publication in Nature Biotechnology (PDF) tackles mental health among graduate students and postdocs in the biosciences. “No one was talking about it,” Fanuel observed, “and we thought, ‘What, are we all just assuming everything is all right?’” In response to the dearth of research on the subject, Fanuel and co-author Jessica Tsai, a resident physician at Boston Children’s Hospital, conclude, “It is in the best interest of the scientific enterprise to ensure that its trainees are given the support and infrastructure needed to do outstanding science.”
With this conviction in mind, Fanuel embraces his new role in higher-ed management. As a grad student and postdoc, “I was a trainee, riding through the pipeline, and now I get to see how the pipeline is made,” he anticipates, which will hopefully allow him to promote systemic change and long-term improvements.
Fanuel’s unique resumé and zeal are well suited to fostering MCO’s numerous outreach programs, many of which have been initiated by the graduate students themselves. He is confident that science outreach not only benefits the community at large, but “can significantly enhance the student experience at MCO and may be a strong draw for prospective students.” While supporting both new and established student efforts, he continues to walk the walk by participating in outreach initiatives himself. As a mentor for Harvard Summer Schools this year, Fanuel visited several middle schools in Kenya where he shared his scientific enthusiasm with young students and encouraged them to pursue the field.
Fanuel approached MCO for the same reason he would consider any department or university as a prospective student or postdoc (in fact, after graduate school, he considered applying to Alex Schier’s lab as a postdoc himself). “I could have applied to an engineering department, or even another research area in the sciences,” he explains, “But it was the work that’s going on here that intrigued me…I saw a community of people asking important questions and I wanted to be a part of it, even if I’m not directly doing the research myself.”
Science—research and discovery—is the fundamental motive behind his diverse efforts in education, advocacy, neurobiology, and administration. “I just look at science from a different perspective now,” he reflects; “My questions are different. I’m no longer asking, ‘Can I activate the parabrachial nucleus in the brainstem?’…I’m reading student research reports, attending student and faculty talks and journal clubs and thinking, ‘How are students generating new questions? What strategies do they utilize? How can they use their scientific training in areas outside of academia and bench research?’”
As his career at MCO begins, Fanuel intends to keep asking questions alongside students and faculty, applying the scientific method to higher-ed management in order to “get the best people doing the best science and thinking in completely new ways about the world we live in.”
“Although he has only recently joined the MCO administrative team,” Catherine Dulac reports, “[he is] already deeply immersed in thinking through how the MCO program works, and how to make it even better.”
List of Fanuel’s publications in PubMed