Student Profile: Dr. Asma Bashir

This story was written as part of the Djavid Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health 2019/2020 annual report. You can read the full report here. 

Dr. Asma Bashir joined the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health in 2015, shortly after completing her undergraduate degree in Boston. She joined Dr. Cheryl Wellington’s lab as a PhD student and studied traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Dr. Bashir’s project was focused on the Closed-Head Impact Model of Engineered Rotational Acceleration (CHIMERA) — a tool developed in 2014 in collaboration between Dr. Wellington and Dr. Peter Cripton at UBC’s School of Biomedical Engineering — which allows researchers to generate TBIs in animal models to help study the consequences of head impacts over acute and chronic time-points.

Several animal models to study TBI exist, but most don’t generate head injuries that accurately represent what happens when humans hit their head. This was Dr. Bashir’s challenge: validation of multiple human TBI phenotypes using CHIMERA. The first part of her PhD project involved identifying the phenotypes missing from the injuries generated using CHIMERA. Cerebrovascular damage, a key component of human TBI regardless of injury severity, was noticeably absent. Dr. Bashir worked to expand the platform to be able to generate injuries that affected the cerebrovasculature. In this study, deficits in memory and neurophysiology were also found, closely mimicking findings in people who have hit their head.

An exciting moment in her research was discovering that rats exposed to repetitive head impacts showed signs of impulsivity — in other words, rather than waiting longer for more food, injured animals chose to receive less food sooner compared to uninjured animals. This clearly mimicked human behaviour, as some people who have experienced several head injuries become more impulsive over time.

“We really paid attention to the most prevalent behavioural and neuropathological TBI phenotypes in humans and attempted to recreate them in rodents, because you need a good model that represents what’s happening in humans before investigating promising therapeutics; otherwise you just end up curing rodent head injuries and not human head injuries,” says Dr. Bashir. “CHIMERA is poised to become a very valuable model of human head injury which, in the near future, will be important for studying potential therapeutic options for TBI.”

The Wellington lab has shipped 21 CHIMERA tools across the world and provided other researchers with training, backed by Bashir’s research demonstrating its value in understanding a range of outcomes across the severity spectrum of brain injuries.

“What I enjoyed most about working with Dr. Wellington is that it’s her goal to make sure you’re a quality, independent researcher with rigour and integrity and she never wavered from that,” says Dr. Bashir. “I took that very seriously and now I see how much more independent I am as a researcher.”

Outside of the lab, Dr. Bashir has many interests, including science communication. In 2019, with support from the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, she launched “Her Royal Science,” a podcast which looks at the lives of scientists inside and outside of the lab. She saw it as an opportunity to introduce listeners to some of the most interesting people working in science, technology, engineering and math-related (STEM) fields, but also as a chance to dig into individual life stories and learn about the variety of experiences that make people who they are.

“I’ve always been intensely curious about people’s lives and what led them to where they are today, so I thought it would be a great idea to bring the conversations I was already having in private to a wider audience,” she says.

The project also aims to bring awareness to the lack of diversity that exists in STEM fields, through talking about individual experiences. The science is important, certainly, but Bashir wants to uncover life stories and humanize scientists in order to expand the public’s perceptions about what it means to be in research and academia.

Dr. Bashir graduated in December 2019 and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh, but the podcast lives on! New episodes continue to launch at herroyalscience.com.