Anir Ahant
Anir Ahant has been selected as a recipient of the NIH Undergraduate Scholarship Program, which provides $20,000, as well as summer research work and a post-baccalaureate training position at the NIH. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

VCU biology major’s passion for medicine, science and research leads to prestigious NIH scholarship

Anir Ahant is the third VCU undergraduate in four years to receive the highly competitive NIH Undergraduate Scholarship.

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Anir Ahant, a junior biology major at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been named a recipient of a prestigious scholarship from the National Institutes of Health, making him the third VCU student in four years to receive the highly competitive national award.

As a recipient of the NIH Undergraduate Scholarship Program, Ahant will receive $20,000 and a guaranteed summer research position at the NIH, as well as a paid post-baccalaureate training position at the NIH after graduation.

“This award wasn’t just my own effort, but a testament to the hard work and care that all of these people invested in me, and the care that VCU has as a whole for its students,” Ahant said. “I’m very excited to explore NIH and meet peers and mentors who have both similar and dissimilar mindsets in how they approach science and their careers.”

In addition to studying biology, Ahant is a chemistry minor in the College of Humanities and Sciences, as well as a student in the Honors College and VCU LEAD, a living-learning community focused on leadership skills, in which Ahant has been working on an independent study to develop a new curriculum for reflected-based leadership development.

Ahant is planning to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. to become a surgeon-scientist. One reason he is excited about the scholarship, he said, is because it will expose him to physician-scientists who need to balance clinical practice and research in the lab.

“I would love to connect with such surgeon-scientists who actively operate while maintaining a productive laboratory. Such surgeon-scientists are rare not only because of the nature of this balancing act, but also because these intrinsic administrative pressures are only alleviated in research-intensive institutions,” he said. “NIH is the epicenter for this sort of work, and I am so excited to learn from mentors working at the forefront with these questions.”

Ahant is president of the student organization Center for Health and Human Rights at VCU and he also founded the Medical Scientist Training Club at VCU to help support other undergraduates pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D.

Additionally, he serves as a Supplemental Instruction leader in VCU’s Campus Learning Center, a role in which student employees work within their area of academic expertise to help students with course content, study skills and other learning strategies.

Ahant's  research experience began in high school, when he worked at the Food and Drug Administration conducting HIV research. As part of his work at the FDA, he also received training at the NIH.

At VCU, Ahant has been working for the past two years in the lab of Greg Walsh, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology, which studies how the nervous system is built in the vertebrate embryo.

“We use the superior optical quality of the zebrafish embryo central nervous system to help us understand some of their earliest and most fundamental events in brain development,” Walsh said. “Anir [began] a project to identify what genes are expressed in newly born nerve cells that help them assemble into circuits.”

Ahant approached Walsh as a freshman, seeking a research opportunity in his lab. Walsh doesn’t usually take on freshmen, but Ahant's previous research experience made him stand out.

“Anir already had tremendous experience with molecular biological research having done high school summer research projects at the FDA and the NIH,” Walsh said. “Anir, with little guidance from me, took right to using a new PCR-based assay (a technique used to amplify small segments of DNA) to determine which zebrafish in our facility were carrying mutations. Anir sat down, learned how it worked, how to use the software, and set up controlled experiments using this machine all by himself.”

Walsh said Ahant has exceeded expectations for undergraduate researchers.

“In my nine years at VCU, I have had over 35 undergraduates perform research projects in my lab. Anir is among the very best of these students that I have had the pleasure to work with, and most of those were seniors at the time that they entered my lab,” Walsh said.

Sarah Golding, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology, said a student being selected as a recipient of the NIH Undergraduate Scholarship Program is a remarkable accomplishment.

“Students who are selected for the program represent the top future scientists in our nation,” she said.“Scholarship recipients are not only rewarded financially but they are paired with some of the top research scientists in the world for their training, thus this becomes a career-making experience.”

The previous VCU recipients of the scholarship were Candace Moore, who graduated in 2018, and Sarah Izabel, who graduated in May.

“For VCU to have a student selected is a huge honor, and yet Anir is the third VCU student in four years to achieve this honor,” Golding said.

Ahant thanked a number of people at VCU for their support, including Walsh and Golding, as well as Herb Hill, director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program; Mahanty’s pre-health adviser, Brian Cone; Career Services adviser Cody Rogalski and many others. He also thanked Izabel, who he said has been an amazing peer mentor and helped him greatly in his professional development.

“I’m so grateful to everyone that has invested support in me throughout my time at VCU,” he said. “I’ve had so much help along this journey, and really could not have done this without all the hard work and belief in me that people showered along the way.”