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From a Small Town to Living a Scientific Dream

When Mayassa Bou-Dargham, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow in Penn’s Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute (AFCRI), recently received a pilot project grant from the Institute, a big banner honoring her many academic achievements was hung in her Lebanese hometown.

But getting to this point took years of determination, self-confidence and, in small part, fate.

Pursuing a Dream

Mayassa Bou-Dargham

Bou-Dargham grew up in Kfarheem, a small village in the mountains of Lebanon. Young, single women in her town do not have the same freedom to live alone or study abroad as those in bigger Lebanese cities or other countries. But, even in high school, Bou-Dargham knew she wanted to eventually get a PhD in the sciences abroad.

Both parents supported their daughter’s desire to attend college, but staying at a dorm was not going to be part of it. “It’s not common for a woman to leave her parents’ home until she marries,” Bou-Dargham explained. “So I had to live at home or live with friends.” Her uncle strongly seconded this arrangement. “We don’t let women in our family live alone!”

“It was my first hint that pursuing a PhD wouldn’t be easy,” she said wryly.

While Bou-Dargham did go on to receive her BS in biochemistry from the Lebanese University, true to her parents’ stipulation, she never roomed in a dorm. During her first year, she attended a smaller branch of the University that was closer to her hometown than the main campus (although still a 45-minute ride). Her father drove her to classes every day. For the remaining three years, which were on the college’s main campus, Bou-Dargham took a bus to and from the campus, a two-hour round trip.

The next challenge to tackle was getting an advanced degree. Bou-Dargham didn’t have many options in Lebanon, but the Lebanese University has affiliations with other universities in European countries for graduate degrees; one of the major affiliations was in France. She already spoke English fluently, but learning French next seemed like just another barrier to pursuing her dream. “I knew that if I wanted to get a PhD, I’d have to travel abroad.” However, she wasn’t quite sure where to go.

Fate intervened. One of her professors at the Lebanese University received her PhD from Florida State University. Coincidentally, while Bou-Dargham was debating her future educational choices, representatives from Florida State happened to be visiting… and recruiting graduate students. “At the conference they explained about their research and I got to speak with the chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He told me I should apply.”

And she did. But, unlike many students applying to graduate school in the U.S., she put all her eggs in the Florida State basket. “Students in the U.S. typically apply to 10-12 graduate schools. but I thought if I didn’t get in, I’d follow the same path as my classmates and go to France,” she said. She even started learning French, to make sure language wouldn’t be a barrier to getting her PhD.

When she received an acceptance to Florida State, she was both surprised and thrilled. But, although her parents had no issue with her applying, attending a college alone in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, was something completely different. In their culture, she said, it was rare for a young woman to travel without parents or a husband.

Her mom left Bou-Dargham to deal with her father because “she assumed he’d say no. But I told him how hard I had worked and how I love what I do and how much I wanted this,” she recalled, asking him “are you really going to say no because I’m a woman? I worked hard for this but I won’t go without your approval.” Her father gave his approval a few days later, much to her mother’s surprise (and dismay). But, in the end, both parents not only approved but also helped with the transition.

Bou-Dargham successfully received her master’s and PhD degrees in biochemistry at Florida State. In fact, her dissertation on cancer and immune evasion resulted in several published articles, including four first-author papers. But it wasn’t easy. Apart from the hard work involved in her scientific achievements, she had never lived alone before, handling all the day to day responsibilities, like cooking and paying bills.  But she made it through.

For her post-doctoral fellowship, she set her sights on Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, not only for its excellence in research but also “I wanted to continue my work in immunology at the place that helped develop CAR T therapy,” which became the nation's first FDA-approved personalized cellular therapy for cancer. A month before she graduated, she even emailed Carl June, MD, director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, who was a pioneer in CAR T. “He was so nice and told me he would know about openings in his lab in December,” when she graduated.

But she couldn’t wait; to extend her student visa she wanted to make sure she secured a job before graduating.

She found a post-doctoral position in the lab of Youhai Chen, PhD, at Penn but soon discovered he was leaving for a position in China. She was then able to join the lab of Warren Pear, MD, PhD, director of Experimental Pathology and Immunobiology, where she currently works. In the Pear lab, Bou-Dargham Is studying the role of a protein called Trib, short for “tribbles” (named for the rapidly reproducing small furry creatures on an episode of the original Star Trek), which is associated with the onset of leukemia.  “Trib is responsible for recruiting immune cells called macrophages which suppress the immune system and allow a tumor to grow in a tumor microenvironment.”

A Banner Achievement

A banner hanging across a building, honoring the academic achievements of Mayassa Bou-Dargham, in her Lebanese hometown

For postdoctoral biomedical researchers like Bou-Dargham, finding a lab to call home is an important first step, but getting ongoing funding to pursue the research questions that intrigue them most is a challenge that continues. And it can be extra challenging for trainees from outside the United States. “Many times I want to apply for a grant but I’m not eligible,” she says. “International students’ CVs show that we often struggle to get grants.”

It’s for that reason that the AFCRI created a new post-doctoral grant last year. James Riley, director of Fiscal Operations in Cancer Biology and the AFCRI, played an integral role in creating it. The idea stemmed from an informal discussion he had with postdocs at a departmental retreat. “One postdoc commented that he would love it if there were some sort of grant mechanism or a pilot project that they [those on visas] could apply to.”

Riley took the idea to his management team, which included Cancer Biology Chair Lewis Chodosh, MD, PhD, and AFCRI Scientific Director Celeste Simon, PhD. The new funding mechanism was approved and the funding made available. “We had been able to budget through a variety of measures for more pilot projects this year than we had in the past couple years,” Riley said.

They put out two calls for grant proposals in mid-August: one for principal investigators, which had been awarded for several years, and one for new post-doctoral fellows… without any qualification limitations.

Bou-Dargham was one of five who received a grant, out of 22 submissions. “It was amazing,” she said. The funding enables her to follow up on her preliminary findings and do further in-depth, in vivo studies to identify the role of Trib in regulating the tumor microenvironment.

She excitedly told her parents, who wanted to share the news with everyone in their town of approximately 2,500. “My dad saw the mayor in the supermarket and told him about the grant to fund my research. The mayor wanted to put up a banner and took the idea to the municipal committee.” The decision to honor Bou-Dargham was unanimous.

After getting all the pertinent information, a banner was placed across a main road in the center of town, with the following message (translated from Arabic): “The municipal committee of Kfarheem congratulates Dr. Mayassa Burjas Bou Bou-Dargham who got her PhD in cancer research and immunology in 2019, on her patent application, 16 publications, and recently for being rewarded for her research at UPenn, which is one of the top 5 universities in the world.”  The patent, in which she was listed as a coinventor, was for the findings of her first published research paper that identified methods for treating breast cancer patients based on their immune evasion mechanisms.

“I was surprised and happy! As someone who left their hometown at 21 and is succeeding elsewhere you always feel that something is missing, the people you grew up with, the town that watched you grow does not fully know what you do or that you’re succeeding,” she said. “But it filled my heart how they reacted. My parents were getting phone calls from people in town congratulating them for over two weeks. My mom posted a picture of the banner on Facebook and everyone expressed their pride and support.”

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