Persistence, Resilience and Fortitude are Hallmarks of USU Neuroscience Graduate

A group of five students from Khayrullina's neuroscience class of 2016 in a crowded room.

By Vivian Mason

After nearly four and a half years of toil, challenges and countless obstacles, Guzal Khayrullina recently completed the neuroscience PhD program at USU. It was a big part of her life for many years, but the journey was fascinating, and allowed her to study what she was most passionate about.

“It’s important to set achievable research goals and celebrate successes, no matter how small,” Khayrullina said. “After all, every small success―and failure for that matter―gets you closer to the result you’re looking for.” 

She believes in not being afraid to make mistakes, even though deep down no one really likes doing that -- mistakes are an important part of learning and growth, she said. Science is hard. Students might doubt their abilities, but Khayrullina advises, “Don’t give up. It’s part of the PhD experience.”

Khayrullina in a lab setting examining an experiment.
Guzal Khayrullina, a USU class of 2021 neuroscience
program graduate, believes the best aspect of being a
scientist is making novel discoveries in the lab.
[Image Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Balfour, USU]
Khayrullina has been interested in science since childhood. Both her parents are scientists, too. She remembers them taking her to their labs when she was a kid. Khayrullina thought it was the coolest thing in the entire world and knew that she had to be a scientist.

Khayrullina wasn’t sure whether she wanted to pursue medical school or graduate school, so she took a few gap years after earning her undergraduate degree and worked at a pharmaceutical company in Gaithersburg doing research and development, and quality control. There, a co-worker knew Dr. Kimberly Byrnes, professor and director of the USU neuroscience program, and Khayrullina was able to get a job in Byrnes’ lab at USU. It was the first time she had heard of the university. 

“After I got here, I thought ‘Wow! How did I not know of this place?’ It was intimidating at first―the military aspect and the tremendous research that I wasn’t even aware of. USU is a hidden gem, and it’s been the best experience I’ve had so far,” Khayrullina said.

After working as a research assistant and seeing the many graduate students come through Byrnes’ lab, it made Khayrullina think, “I can do this.” But it was a lot harder than she expected. 

“What you see and what you go through are totally different when it comes to a PhD. There’s so much troubleshooting and so much hard work that you just can’t give up,” Khayrullina said. “There’s a lot of persistence when it comes to getting a PhD. When you talk about your work, you’re so excited about it, but people don’t see the hundreds of failed experiments that have gone into one little tiny piece of data.” 

Yet, Khayrullina thinks the best aspect of being a scientist is the fact that anything you find is novel. 

“You’re the first to see and discover it, even if it’s something small. You’ve figured it out on your own, and so far, no one has seen anything like that. Somehow, those thoughts kind of keep you going,” she said.

Still she re-emphasizes that students should never give up. Even if your experiments fail, even if your equipment fails, or even if there’s a pandemic, don’t throw in the towel. Remember that everything will come together. 

“It’s so easy to get consumed by the things that aren’t working, but you have to take time to celebrate the incredible progress you’re making as well.” 

Dr. Guzal Khayrullina and her fiancé, fellow USU graduate Dr. Robert Geiger, in New York City. [Image Credit: Courtesy of Guzal Khayrullina]
Dr. Guzal Khayrullina and her fiancé, fellow USU graduate Dr. Robert Geiger, in New York City. [Image Credit: Courtesy of Guzal Khayrullina]

It’s also helped to have a collaborative research environment at USU. Khayrullina was impressed by how many USU professors were eager to work with her and other labs to learn about patient induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC)-differentiated cardio cells and microglia in spinal muscular atrophy. 

Her boss, principal investigator Dr. Barrington Burnett, has been absolutely incredible. She praises his unique ability to support students. 

“He nudges you, but doesn’t actually tell you what to do. He’s probably most responsible for my professional growth,” Khayrullina said. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for him. He’s remarkable as a scientist, a mentor, and a person. Hands down, he’s one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.”

Another source of support has been her fiancé, Robert Geiger, a fellow USU Class of 2021 PhD graduate in the molecular and cell biology program.

“I ended up walking away from USU with not only a PhD, but also a future husband,” laughs Khayrullina.  They met in the Introduction to Neuroscience class.  “He’s been my rock. Between all the failed experiments, my struggles, and the pandemic, we relied on each other,” she said.  

After graduation, she’ll be doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. There, though still studying inflammation, she’ll be doing neuro-oncology research with Dr. Masaki Terabe. 

“I’m so excited about it. It’s something new... I love it that I’ll always be learning with my PhD. It helps me see things in the world in a different way, but I’ll always be learning and that inspires me,” Khayrullina said.  She is also inspired to collaborate to progress science further to help humankind.

“I would like to incorporate more human patient lines and generate some sort of repository for patients with neurodegenerative diseases as a free resource that is available for all scientists to utilize. It would be great if there was a way to unify our findings a little bit more, and somehow combine and use everybody’s resources to get us further ahead than we are now.” 

A demonstration of persistence, resilience, and fortitude par excellence.