Ryan Nasser, a senior double majoring in neuroscience and creative writing, is not sure exactly where he will end up, but he knows he is on his way to becoming a physician.

If you ask him how he got started down this path, he cites his time spent conducting research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke as part of a neuroscience fellowship program following his first year.

During this time, Nasser worked in the Valdez Lab, which studies muscle health in the context of aging and in those with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Nasser's project in particular focused on the maintenance of the neuromuscular junction - the point where your nerves connect to your muscles - in aging mice.

“That research experience gave me a lot of practical communication, interpersonal, and organizational skills relevant to my field of study. It also laid the foundation for a successful undergraduate career, both academically and professionally,” said Nasser, who encourages other students to pursue research they are interested in while studying at Virginia Tech. 

In addition to academic and professional growth, Nasser notes that all the students grew on a personal level as well. “All the other students and I were housed on the same floor of an apartment building in downtown Roanoke, so I have fond memories of exploring the city with other students and feeling a greater sense of independence than I had ever previously experienced in my life,” he said.

Reflecting on this first research experience, Nasser said that the students also grew on a personal level, supporting each other. 

“My birthday fell on the same day as the end-of-summer research symposium. I invited my peers out to a birthday dinner, but just a few of them joined me. When I got back to my apartment, I found where the others were - they sprayed me with silly string, threw confetti at me, and blew loudly on their kazoos. They had set up a surprise party for me while I was out for dinner. It meant a lot that these people who I had only known for a couple months' time had made my birthday special for me while I was away from home,” he said.

Nasser plans to apply to medical schools during the 2020-21 application cycle. Before that, he plans on spending a gap year pursuing a job as a research assistant on a clinical trial as he considers what he might want to specialize in. 

Ryan Nasser

The fellowship experience continued opening doors for Nasser, who later worked with Keri Swaby in the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) as a summer peer mentor, tasked with supporting the office’s summer programming efforts and building community among summer researchers. He returned the following summer as the Lead Summer Peer Mentor, coordinating OUR summer activities and supervising a team of three junior peer mentors.

“Ryan’s own summer research experience really prepared him to impact and expand OUR summer programming to meet the needs of the summer researchers best. The summer researchers commented that Ryan and his team made their summer socially fun and exciting and really elevated the summer research experience beyond their expectations,” said Swaby.

She added, “Ryan is a consummate leader with a keen insight into the needs and interests of the summer researchers.” 

In addition to undergraduate research, Nasser participated in the Orion Living Learning Community for students in the sciences. (The Orion LLC provides first-year students with social, academic, and professional events, a second-year mentor, and hands-on experiential learning through citizen-science projects.) 

Nasser returned to the residential hall as a sophomore to serve as a mentor. He moved off campus for his junior and senior years, but maintained his commitment to helping younger students by serving as a member of the upperclassman leadership team within the Orion LLC.

"As the mentor coordinator in the community, I was put in charge of training our mentors, teaching class sessions, assembling and coordinating project teams. I had never been in a position that required so much out of me as a leader. Being able to serve in this capacity was a huge boon to my confidence,” he said.

Once again, one opportunity led to another for Nasser, and he was hired by Rex Waters, associate director for Undergraduate Academic Programs for the Office of First-Year Experiences, to serve as the coordinator for FYE@VT’s peer mentor programs.

Waters said, “I have had many opportunities to observe Ryan as a leader, and I am always impressed by his ability to include and motivate others to achieve their goals. He cares about the community, and with that he brings hard work, deep intelligence and a clear understanding of what is in store for him as he immerses himself in new and varied projects that capture meaning and value for the betterment of life.”

Nasser said he will continue to draw from what he has learned through all of his life experiences during his time at Virginia Tech. 

“The ability to manage my time, work effectively within a team, listen and relate to others - the foundational skills I developed as an undergraduate student - will become all the more important as I move further along toward my career goals,” he said.

While Nasser is excited for the next chapter of his life, he said his memories from his time at Virginia Tech will make the conclusion of this chapter bittersweet, especially given the rapid shift to online classes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I'll miss the campus itself; going through the everyday hustle and bustle of classes and other responsibilities, you can sometimes forget to appreciate how beautiful the campus is, but it's really something to marvel at. I'm going to miss the town of Blacksburg, a town which is so deeply intertwined with the culture and community of Virginia Tech that, in my mind, they're one and the same. Lastly, I'm going to miss a lot of the people I've met along the way who, after graduating and going in whatever direction life takes us, I may never see again,” said Nasser.

Written by Rachel Kinzer Corell and Abby Mercatoris-Morrison