Monday, May 23, 2016

By Sara Diedrich

The moment Kawther Ahmed starts her presentation for the University of Iowa Three-Minute Thesis Competition, her audience knows they’re in for something special.

She is bright, engaging, and professional.

In 180 seconds, Ahmed, a fifth-year graduate student in the UI College of Pharmacy, explains her cancer-vaccine research in easy-to-understand terms, turning complex science into digestible nuggets of knowledge. Her passion is mesmerizing.

“The problem with cancer is the immune system does not see tumor cells as anything dangerous, and it does not respond to them,” she tells the audience. “Cancer vaccines change the status quo. Cancer vaccines tag the cancer cells, put red flags on them, telling the immune system, ‘Hey, this is dangerous. You need to do something about it.’”

The thesis competition is part of the UI Graduate College’s career and professional-development effort. The ability to clearly and concisely articulate complex research to non-specialist audiences is a vital skill for both academic and non-academic careers.

Ahmed won the competition on March 26, taking home $500 and a funded trip to the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) 2016 conference. Contestants who advanced to the final round also won a $250 cash prize. Honorable mentions went to Shiya Wang, a Ph.D. student in molecular physiology and biophysics, and Katherine Peters, a Ph.D. student in environmental engineering. The complete list of finalists is available on the Graduate College website. 

For those who know Ahmed, her win came as no surprise.

“She is diligent, has integrity, and is an outstanding verbal and written communicator,” says Aliasger Salem, professor in the UI College of Pharmacy and Ahmed’s adviser. “Scientifically, she has outstanding technical skills and is a leader in her research projects.”

Ahmed has worked in the UI’s Salem Laboratory of Advanced Drug and Gene Delivery, where the focus, among other things, is to developing vaccines that helps the body’s immune system fight threats.

Salem says Ahmed provides support to other members of lab and is a selfless team player.

“She has a positive collegial relationship with all of the members of my lab,” he says. “She is down to earth, humble, and approachable.”

Salem expects that in five to ten years, Ahmed will have her own lab, leading groundbreaking research in cancer immunology.

Ahmed came to the UI in 2011 from her native Iraq on a scholarship sponsored by the country’s Higher Committee for Education Development. She had already received a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Baghdad, where she met her husband, another pharmacist, who joined her at the UI through the same scholarship program. The couple has three children: an 18-month-old, a 7-year-old, and a 9-year old.

Ahmed received a master’s in pharmacy from the UI in 2013 and eventually was accepted into the College of Pharmacy’s Ph.D. program. She expects to graduate this summer.

Ahmed grew up in a family steeped in academia. Both her parents were university professors, and two of her three sisters also found their way into education.

The second-oldest among her siblings, Ahmed wanted to be an engineer like her father. But he suggested if she were to follow him, it would be best for her to attend graduate school and work in academia.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t want to teach,’” she recalls. “I decided to become a pharmacist.”

Ahmed did become a pharmacist, but her feelings about teaching changed when she started college. Today, Ahmed and her husband, Ali Al-Jumaili, both have positions waiting for them at the University of Baghdad’s College of Pharmacy, where they will return once Al-Jumaili finishes his doctoral studies at the UI.  

Ahmed is grateful for the opportunity to study under the tutelage of Salem and to be exposed to the level of thinking and world-class research the UI offers.

“Dr. Salem is a very collaborative researcher,” she says. “This massive collaboration really brings a lot to the table and influences what you can do, what you can learn, and what type of research you can get involved in. I feel lucky that I have been in such a lab.”

Ahmed says many of the professors in Iraq have been educated in the United Kingdom and the United States and bring back their knowledge, research capabilities, and critical-thinking skills.

“They come back and help direct how the students think, write, and look at research,” she says.

Because of security concerns in Iraq, Ahmed has only visited once in five years. Since then, two members of her family have died, and her children have assimilated to American culture, speaking English better than Arabic.

She has found that keeping traditions alive in a foreign country is difficult.

“It’s been hard,” she says. “It’s hard because it is overseas from my life. My sister died two years ago; my father died three months ago. I couldn’t go back for either. That is not easy.”

Still, the experience has shown Ahmed that she is more connected to her family, country, and people than she ever thought.

“I now appreciate small things in my country that I was not much appreciating before, like the hierarchical family structure and simply being myself without having to explain why I do or do not do things certain ways,” she says. “As I am living in a very diverse community here in Iowa, I have learned that I am more open-minded and accepting than I thought I could be.”