It’s all in the family at Berkeley

Aaida and Tahoura Samad, identical-twin freshmen and scientists-in-the-making at Berkeley, will welcome a familiar face to campus in the fall: their mother.

Bushra Samad and her daughters Aaida and Tahoura

Bushra Samad (center) and her daughters Aaida and Tahoura, in Stanley Hall. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Bushra Samad, who earned a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from Berkeley in December 2008, has just been admitted to the bioengineering Ph.D. program that Cal offers jointly with UCSF. She is one of just 53 students accepted out of 508 applicants.

Is this another one of those only-at-Berkeley stories? It’s tough to know for sure. But it’s also hard to imagine that too many other universities play scholastic home to a trio of students who are a mother and her twin daughters. And it might be difficult, too, for many mothers raising teenage daughters to imagine earning a bioengineering degree and winning admission to a highly competitive graduate program at the same time.

“It takes 100 percent cooperation from your kids and your family,” says Bushra Samad. “You figure this out a day at a time.”

The Samad trio gathered recently to tell their story in an interview in Stanley Hall’s Sjolander lab, which has served as Bushra Samad’s campus base for her research in the field of computational biology.

It starts in Kuwait, where Bushra was born. On a visit to the United States, she met her husband-to-be — now an R&D director for electronic design automation in Silicon Valley — and moved to Arizona to marry him. Twins, and later a third daughter, put an end to her work on a college degree in computer science, at least for a while.

But after the family moved to Fremont, and the kids were in school, Bushra resumed her computer science classes, first at Ohlone Community College and then at Berkeley. An assignment for an English class got her looking into the fact that there had been no twins in her family for generations before her own were born, and that led her to write about the human genome project.

Biology, she says, became her passion, and with her computer background, bioengineering was a natural choice.

“It’s a wonderful area. It’s multidisciplinary — natural science, mathematics, statistics, computer science.” Now her field is computational biology, specifically bio-informatics, working to make sense of the enormous amount of data being generated by the human genome project. In part, she says, her work involves trying to infer the function of certain human proteins from the function of other proteins.

“When I went back to school, I realized that this is exactly where I want to be, this is what I thrive at,” Bushra says. “Not a lot of people my age can say they’re doing the thing they’re sure they want to do.”

While Bushra was working toward her B.S. degree, she’d bring the twins along to campus.

“I sometimes dumped you guys in the library while I worked,” she reminds her daughters.

“That was a lot of times,” says Tahoura. Sometimes they’d do homework in the lab. They got to know the campus, and by the time they were juniors at Fremont’s Mission San Jose High School, knew they wanted to come to Cal. Both earned admission; they started last fall.

Tahoura remembers hearing a lot from her mother about her work, and decided to study bioengineering too.

“I like to think I would have gravitated to bioengineering on my own, but that was a good inside source,” she says.

Through the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, she’s already working with a graduate student in a bioengineering lab, studying latency in the HIV virus, and finds hands-on research to be really exciting. She has her sights set on grad school.

Asked if there were anything else she likes to do at Cal, she says her lab work “is the ‘anything else’ I waited my whole high school career to do.”

Aaida is studying molecular and cell biology, with plans to go to medical school. Through URAP, she’s also doing lab work in optometry, studying myopia.

“It’s amazing how complex the systems are,” she observes.

Bushra Samad is thrilled to be coming back to Berkeley as part of the UC Berkeley & UCSF Graduate Program in Bioengineering, which takes advantage of Cal’s bioengineering labs and San Francisco’s medical facilities.

“I’m still a little starry-eyed,” she confesses. “I feel like I worked my whole life for this, and now I’m here. It’s daunting.”

In graduate school, she’ll rotate through different labs. In five or six years, if things go well, she’ll be Dr. Samad, with a Ph.D. in bioengineering — and her twins will be in grad school.

By then, the baby of the family, Muntaha, now a ninth-grader at Mission San Jose High, should be in college. And with any luck, she’ll join the list of Berkeley Samads.

“She has aspirations of playing softball for Berkeley,” says her mother.

If she’s anything like her mother and sisters, you can count on it.