Building STEM Leaders in Egypt
Cancer Biology graduate student Nourhan Abdelfattah will be joining the Schlumberger Foundation’s Faculty for the Future fellowship program comprised of women scientists and engineers from emerging and developing countries engaged in post-graduate STEM research.
Since its launch in 2004, 600 women from 78 developing and emerging countries have received Faculty for the Future fellowships to pursue Ph.D. and postdoctoratal study in STEM in 243 renowned universities worldwide.
The program’s long-term goal is to generate conditions that result in more women pursuing scientific careers by lowering the barriers women face when entering STEM disciplines, thus reducing the gender gap.
Abdelfattah explained that growing up in Cairo, Egypt she saw the different ways girls were treated.
“I saw my playmates live through female genital mutilation, being removed from school after fifth grade and getting married in their teens. This was one of the reasons that drove me into civil societies and human rights advocacy later in my teens. I felt privileged because; being a woman in my household wasn’t associated with inferiority. My mother — who’s a lawyer — had a higher academic degree than my father. My brother and I were equally encouraged to play sports and do extracurricular activities. I spent my summers between the public library, sketching, swimming, Karate and field hockey practices,” she said.
Abdelfattah became interested in genetic engineering at the age of 11.
“We were visiting the Cairo International Book Fair and I stumbled upon a book about cloning Dolly the sheep. That is when I told my parents I wanted to be a scientist. Five years later, I started my undergraduate degree in biotechnology,” she said.
Abdelfattah is currently a Ph.D. student in the Cancer Biology track of the Integrated Multidisciplinary Graduate Program, now called Integrated Biomedical Sciences program.
“When I was 14, I had to watch my best friend go through diagnosis, radiation and chemotherapy for leukemia. My feelings of despair and uselessness further pushed me towards a career children’s cancer research,” she said. “Through my research, I want to eliminate the side effects that chemo and radiotherapy cause. I currently work in the lab of Dr. Manjeet Rao on the use of microRNAs as therapeutic adjuvants to chemo- and radiotherapy to treat high-risk medulloblastoma.”
Medulloblastoma, a primitive neuroectodermal tumor, is the most common type of pediatric brain cancer.
“Despite the progress in treating medulloblastoma, the 5-year survival rate for high-risk tumors remains poor and risk of relapse within two years of treatment is still high. Around 95 percent of relapsing patients die, which accounts for about 10 percent of childhood cancer deaths,” she said.
Abdelfattah explained that even the children who survive suffer from serious long-term side effects of high-doses of chemo and radiotherapy.
“These side effects include but not limited to IQ loss, severe pain, sensorimotor and autonomic neuropathy, hearing loss and seizures,” she said. “Our work is highly likely to impact the current modalities used to treat and diagnose medulloblastoma.”
After graduating, Abdelfattah plans to continue her work as a role model for girls & women in STEM in Egypt.
“I would like to start a STEM careers awareness program for younger demographics. The goal of this program is to introduce female high-school students to the diverse career options they will have when choosing a career in STEM. The program will also introduce grades K-12 students from public schools to different STEM applications (scientific experiments, robotics, programming…etc) which are not currently taught in public schools due to lack of funds and poor curricula,” she said.
This article is part of the “Meet The Researcher” series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.