Ishmail Abdus-Saboor was born and raised in Philadelphia, with roots in Philadelphia dating back four generations. His great grandparents on each side moved north to Philadelphia from the south. A religious conversion by Ishmail’s father initiated changing the family name from Parkinson to Abdus-Saboor, a common phenomenon amongst African-American Muslim converts (ie. Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Ishmail’s mother is Chief Financial Officer at a consulting firm and his father is an actuary who has predominantly worked in the life insurance industry. His parents are graduates of Howard University, and his grandparents graduated in the 1940s from Lincoln and West Chester Universities, just outside of Philadelphia. Thus, Ishmail was fortunate to be raised in an environment where the value of education, exploration, and hard work were deeply engrained in him.

As part of an honor’s biology course at Central High School, at age 14 Ishmail set up a lab at home investigating regeneration in crayfish. He won a citywide science fair competition and this experience set his science career in motion. He received his bachelor’s degree in Animal Science from North Carolina A&T University in 2006, having completed internships in research labs in academia and industry, as well as a veterinary clinic and a farm. It was an internship at the University of Pennsylvania in the summer of 2005 working in a developmental biology lab where he became overjoyed with the fast pace of biomedical research and working at the wet lab bench.

He earned his PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology in 2012 with Meera Sundaram at the University of Pennsylvania studying signal transduction pathways during development of the roundworm C.elegans. His PhD thesis work was supported by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and recognized with the Tom Kadesch Prize in Genetic Research. He completed postdoctoral training with Benjamin Shykind at Weill Cornell Medical College studying monoallelic gene expression of olfactory receptors and Wenqin Luo at the University of Pennsylvania studying neural circuit mechanisms for somatosensation. As a postdoctoral fellow his research was supported by two grants from the NIH and two from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and recognized with the Mitchell Max Award in Pain Research from the NIH.

Ishmail opened his lab in July of 2018 as the Mitchell J. Blutt and Margo Krody Blutt Presidential Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Ishmail is proud and humbled to be the first African-American faculty member in this department at Penn. In addition to generous startup funds from the university, the Abdus-Saboor lab is supported by a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence grant from the NIH.

To learn more about Ishmail’s path towards a career in science, check out these feature articles by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Penn Medicine News:

To learn more about Ishmail's graduate school work and his Tom Kadesch Genetic Prize at UPenn see this feature:

To listen to Ishmail talk about setting up a biology lab at home at age 14, his experiences at a historically black college, and advice for younger students, check out this interview:

To read Ishmail being interviewed by Michelle Johnson of Penn’s MindCore interdisciplinary institute, click below. The content of this interview is geared towards a more lay audience.


1) Reading memoirs and biographies, especially related to the history of molecular biology and genetics. 2) Spending quality time with family. 3) Watching professional basketball, especially Lebron James, the greatest basketball player of all time.