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Sunday, April 5, 2020

Academics & Research

Graduate students win fellowship for cancer research


Test tubes graphic

Jiselle Santos/The Cougar

Cell and molecular biology doctoral students were presented with the $5,000 Robert Hazelwood Graduate Fellowships for Cancer Research this past month.

The annual award is given to students in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry who have “research potential and excellence, as evidenced by publications and presentations at conferences,” according to a College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics webpage.

Arvand Asghari and Shaymaa Bahnassy are graduate students at the University who have been awarded for their research.

Originally from Iran, Asghari began applying to conduct small research projects at a local research center in high school. Asghari graduated from the Direct PhD Program of Biotechnology at University of Tehran with an MSc degree, where he worked on projects in bioinformatics and modeled biological processes via computer software.

After arriving at UH, Asghari began to do more wet-lab research, which consists of work with chemical and biological matter.

“Currently, I do both wet-lab and bioinformatics side by side for most of my projects,” Asghari said.

Asghari’s research focuses on a cholesterol metabolite, 27-hydroxycholesterol and its role in fat tissue and breast cancer.

27-hydroxycholesterol is derived from cholesterol and circulates widely in the body. It has multiple biological functions, including limiting cholesterol synthesis and eliminating extra cholesterol.

“I have found that excess amount of 27-hydroxycholesterol in the body will … increase the fat percentage of the body regardless of the diet,” Asghari said. “And it also leads to inflammation in fat tissue, which is one of the risk factors for several diseases such as cancer.”

He ultimately hopes to discover genes that lead to the recurrence of endocrine-resistant breast cancer.

Bahnassy earned a bachelor’s in biochemistry and a master’s in clinical biochemistry before entering the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at UH as a graduate student.

She now studies new ways to target and conquer drug-resistant breast cancer through the androgen receptor, a type of nuclear receptor.

Androgen receptors normally need to bind their hormones to become active. In drug-resistant breast cancer, a small protein is constantly bound to the receptor and enhances the expression of numerous genes that promote more aggressive forms of breast cancer, Bahnassy said.

For undergraduates aspiring to pursue a career in research, Bahnassy emphasizes the importance of asking questions and acquiring technical skills through shadowing experienced researchers.

“Having passion, persistence and perseverance will help you go after anything that you want to do in life,” Bahnassy said.

Asghari recommends getting into a research lab quickly by being passionate and curious. In the lab, Asghari said, there is always a challenge and 99 percent of experiments will fail but that is not a reason to give up.

Undergraduate students wishing to gain research experience can reach out to UH’s Office of Undergraduate Research for opportunities such as summer funding and poster presentation events.

“I wanted to help patients and cure diseases, but at the same time educate and simplify science for others to understand,” Bahnassy said. “As I grew older, I got to know about research. Being a scientific researcher fulfilled my passion for both.”

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