Teen prodigies pursue pre-med pathway as thriving MTSU freshmen

Apr 05, 2021 at 01:14 pm by WGNS

MTSU Department of Biology chair Dennis Mullen, left, talks with the Alnassari family — mom Khadijah, who is a freshman, and triplets Zaynab Alnassari, Ahmed and Fatima during a visit to a Science Building lab. The triplets are dual enrollment freshmen and on a premed pathway. (MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — At age 14, the amazing Alnassari triplets may be too young to drive, but the Nashville, Tennessee, high school students are steering their own success stories in dual enrollment academic pursuits at Middle Tennessee State University that may lead to medical careers.

Since August 2020, in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic, Fatimah, Zaynab and Ahmed Alnassari have been on a premed pathway, majoring in biology at the university, following their hearts with other interests, finding a passion for research and volunteering to help others.

Talk about driven. They each carry 18 hours this semester after 13 in the fall, perform 40 hours a week in botanical and agricultural research and make excellent grades in their remote, in-person and hybrid MTSU classes.

They and their mother, biology major (and driver) Khadijah Alnassari, made the fall Dean’s List. During winter break, they participated in a telemedical brigade to Honduras. They even find time to solicit appropriate Islamic attire, such as hijabs, for the Raiders Closet in the Career Development Center and plan to participate in the April 6-9 MTSU Habitat for Humanity build.

Fatimah, who plans to be a primary care physician and is the oldest by one minute, considers MTSU “a place where nothing is impossible.”

“If you have a dream you can live it,” she added. “The faculty on campus really teach from the heart and that's what sets it apart from the rest.” 

The trio also is taking one Metro Nashville Public School online course, integrated math, this semester and will take economics and government next year as high school seniors.

Utilizing dual enrollment, all three are majoring in biology at MTSU. Ahmed is pursuing minors in Arabic and sociology; Fatimah, a minor in animation and Arabic; and Zaynab, a minor in Arabic and art.

MTSU has a history with young teen prodigies. Michael Kearney, Taylor Barnes and, most recently, Jacqueline Kulas, earned MTSU undergraduate degrees.

The MTSU experience

The Alnassaris attended the fall 2019 MTSU True Blue Tour recruiting event in Nashville, where they met President Sidney A. McPhee, College of Basic and Applied Sciences Dean Bud Fischer and others, indicating their intentions to dual enroll within a year.

Zaynab, who wants to be an ear, nose and throat specialist, said her time at MTSU “has been unforgettable. It’s the first place where I have truly felt at home — a place where I can be myself. I have been inspired by so many and challenged to dig deeper and work harder.”

Ahmed wants to be heart surgeon. At 10, he saw his youngest brother, Muhammed, born with 17 holes in his heart. Ahmed stayed by his hospitalized baby brother’s side for six months, and witnessed the care doctors and others performed.

“MTSU has been a new beginning for me,” he said. “This uniquely inclusive community has shown me that true strength lies in our differences. Together we make each other stronger, kinder and prouder to be True Blue.”

The family includes brother Zahrah, 7, and father Akeel, a subcontractor who builds houses.

Teen sensations’ research involvement

The teens are go-getters and highly motivated to succeed. They are pursuing URECA (Undergraduate Research Experience and Creative Activity) and other grants, a third Lindsey Vonn Enrichment Scholarship and expect to participate (with a special media poster presentation) during Scholars Week April 12-16.

English lecturer Alyson M. Lynn said as students, they “share the same thirst for knowledge and drive to succeed. … Having them together in class has been a tremendous learning opportunity for everyone involved, including myself and their classmates.”

Lynn, the 2019 John Bragg Sr. Distinguished Service Award recipient and English Department veteran, admits it’s difficult to be brief in her comments about them and their mother.

“Zaynab loves animals, Fatimah loves animation, Ahmed loves just being a student and their mother is awesome,” Lynn said. “… I imagine they are often lumped together, being ‘super-genius’ triplets, but each one is remarkably different.”

Lynn, who is pursuing her doctorate, teaching five sections and about to see her own child graduate from high school, offered congratulations to Khadijah Alnassari for being nominated for two MTSU individual awards, including Nontraditional Student of the Year.

School of Agriculture professor Nate Phillips, who utilized them in a jujube fruit tree propagation research project, said “they have all been a pleasure to work with. They have proven to be reliable, detail-oriented researchers. They are quick and eager learners who have demonstrated they can work efficiently as a team.”

Phillips recommended them to colleague Iris Gao with the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research. They began assisting her with ginseng extraction research in November.

“They participated in a wide variety of learning and research activities and demonstrated diligence, teamwork and a strong curiosity for scientific research,” Gao said.

“Since joining my lab, they have manifested great skills in reading and digesting scholarly papers, analyzing different protocols and procedures from the published methods and learned to use a variety of equipment,” she added.

Collecting clothing for Raiders Closet

In February, they visited the Raiders Closet and discovered there were no Muslim-friendly clothing items for women such as hijabs and scarves. So, they began a solicitation campaign and already have made multiple donations to the Career Center in Keathley University Center, with more anticipated.

“The triplets felt the empowerment of Muslim women in the professional arena was important, so they decided to collect donations for new scarves and attire and donate it to the Raiders Closet,” their mother said.

The Raiders Closet provides free professional clothing to students for presentations, interviews, internships and more. Recruiting coordinator Jeanette Stevens accepted the triplets first round of items and applauded the teens’ hard work and determination.

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