Mukhtar channels passion for community service into ‘transferring knowledge to the next generation’

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by Tehreem Khan

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When Shahid Mukhtar, Ph.D., a plant biology professor at UAB, was a young student in Pakistan, he saw firsthand how limited resources impacted his education. The lack of access to advanced scientific laboratories restricted his academic growth and created a major barrier to developing the next generation of scientists. At the same time, Mukhtar could see how the collectivistic Pakistani culture empowered collaboration, shared knowledge and success despite the circumstances.

Since his faculty appointment at UAB in 2010, Mukhtar has embodied his cultural values of collaboration and community service by playing a pivotal role in educating the next generation of biologists and biology teachers. In recognition of his unwavering commitment to the Birmingham community, with a particular focus on education, diversity and STEM outreach, Mukhtar has been named the recipient of the 2023 Odessa Woolfolk Community Service Award.

This recognition is awarded each year to a faculty member who has rendered outstanding service in the Birmingham community in one or more of these areas: education, economic development, health care delivery, arts, social services, human rights, and urban and public affairs.

Mukhtar’s efforts align with UAB’s strategic plan of promoting diversity and inclusive education. He has enhanced the understanding of research and scientific literacy in the community through fostering valuable collaborations with the Center for Community Outreach Development.

Mukhtar’s journey to the award

Throughout his time at UAB, Mukhtar has spearheaded numerous community engagement programs aimed at inclusive education. These initiatives have touched the lives of countless students, educators and aspiring professionals in the region.

Mukhtar’s first standout program was “Green DNA Day,” an expansion of the “BioTeach” program. He realized that the traditional pathway to becoming a secondary biology teacher had gravitated toward zoology (human and animal biology) and away from botany (the study of plants), which is his area of expertise. To bridge this gap, Mukhtar reached out to CORD’s director, Mike Wyss, Ph.D., and offered to include the “Green DNA Day” in the two-week program.

“Through this initiative, I wanted to empower K-12 teachers in local schools to explore topics critical to modern education like climate change, food security, plant biology and genetics, which are often left behind in high school-level biological discourse.” 

Building on the success of “Green DNA Day,” Mukhtar obtained a new NSF award and introduced the “Plant Genomics Internship for Teachers,” or PlantGIFT, in 2022. In this program, science teachers and students actively contribute to Mukhtar’s research by observing the growth and stress responses of various Arabidopsis plant mutants. This weeklong program continues to train high school teachers from underrepresented backgrounds in genomics and plant sciences.

According to Wyss, Mukhtar’s community engagement efforts over the years have trained over 80 Alabama educators, potentially impacting 9,000 students annually, particularly in the field of plant science. “Even if just 10 percent of these students develop an interest in pursuing a STEM career, this could introduce an additional 700 underrepresented students to the pathway of STEM professions,” Wyss said.

“Dr. Mukhtar’s outreach and service activities related to training the future Alabama STEM workforce have already impacted many secondary biology teachers and students. His open mind, energy and motivation have greatly facilitated science education in the area. CORD greatly cherishes its collaboration with Shahid and looks forward to a continued partnership for years to come,” Wyss said.

Mukhtar as a mentor

Mukhtar’s mentorship and teaching have been instrumental in supporting UAB STEM students.

According to those who recommended him for the award, Mukhtar’s determined commitment to enriching the lives of others through education and inclusivity is evident in his exemplary track record.

“Dr. Mukhtar has inspired thousands of students, opening doors to STEM careers for a diverse group of aspiring professionals,” said Danish Diwan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology. “Dr. Mukhtar has mentored over 50 undergraduate research projects and 23 graduate students and has served on 15 doctoral thesis committees so far.”

According to Katie Busch, CORD’s STEM program coordinator, Mukhtar empowers his students to do the work most meaningful for them.

“He is genuinely helping each young scientist in his lab gain skills, confidence and credentials to go forth and step into their future careers,” Busch said. “This kind of supportive mentorship will undoubtedly create a long-lasting web of support and collaboration across institutions for many years to come.”

Mukhtar’s definition of community service

According to Mukhtar, the meaning of life lies in community service. He often ponders the question, “What’s the meaning of life?” As a geneticist, he defines it as the genetic information we pass along to our next generations, but he admits there is more to it than just the DNA. “I am who I am, but what would be our next generation?” he asks.

“I want our next generations to be better prepared than we were,” Mukhtar said. “I keep asking myself how I can relay the knowledge I have to the next generation. How can we reach out to them and better prepare them for college? That’s the driving force behind all the community outreach initiatives I have launched.”

According to Mukhtar, his philosophy of community service involves ensuring equity. “All kids do not have the same opportunities and experiences, and that does not make them any less deserving of a chance to succeed and build careers around their passions,” he said. 

Mukhtar has expanded his community outreach from daylong to weeklong programs, to an ongoing effort every day. He connects his students to the high schoolers in the area to show successful examples that can serve as motivation for these students. 

“Seeing someone who looks like you or comes from a background like you helps create a sense of belonging. I want to make sure the high schoolers in the state establish a sense of belonging at UAB early on, so they can come to UAB to live their aspirations.”