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Two-year journey

Students progress from top 5 in international competition to published authors

Student Life

By Kelly Foss

Fifth place out of 250 international teams.

It was a strong performance by Memorial biology students Ali Tawfiq Salman, Sarah Ahmed Duraid, Basel Mohamed and Abedalaziz Mohammad Altawabini at IgNITE 2022, one of the most diverse and prestigious medical research competitions in North America.

What’s more, their submission that proposed the use of gene therapy as a potential treatment for patients with HIV-1, caught the eye of one of the competition’s sponsors, leading to their research being published in the Undergraduate Research in Natural and Clinical Sciences and Technology (URNSCT) Journal.

Gene therapy as HIV-1 treatment

Ali Tawfiq Salman stands in front of a river with bridges and buildings in the background on a sunny day.
Ali Tawfiq Salman
Photo: Submitted

“We had some challenges since, as undergraduates, we hadn’t been exposed to writing a formal scientific article before, but the journal had specific instructions and we looked at previous publications to see what the expectations were,” said Mr. Salman.

Basel Mohamed is dressed formally and standing outside by a road and grassy areas with trees and a red car in the background.
Basel Mohamed
Photo: Submitted

Mr. Mohamed says they worked with their professors with the aim of finding ways to make improvements.

“They helped us perfect it, especially Dr. Sherri Christian in the Department of Biochemistry.”

Grateful and thrilled

The students were thrilled with the invitation, since few undergraduate students have published research articles to include on their CVs upon graduation.

Ms. Duraid says she and her team members didn’t truly realize what citing peer-reviewed papers in their work meant until they went through the publishing process.

“We got to go through that experience for ourselves and have knowledgeable people in the field read our paper and articulate questions and give feedback,” she said. “It really opened our eyes.”

“It was an amazing experience,” added Mr. Altawabini. “It not only taught me how to write a paper, but I also feel it made me a better research writer, in my lab workbooks and reports.”

Sarah Ahmed Duraid has one hand in a pocket and the other on a ledge as she leans on a white wall with graffiti on it.
Sarah Ahmed Duraid
Photo: Submitted

Working together

From the first abstract they submitted to the competition in 2021 to the published article two years later, the students say they had many opportunities to develop their skills and work together as a team.

“That progression alone was worth the journey,” said Mr. Mohamed.

The group presented their work at the Faculty of Science’s interdisciplinary conference, Scientific Endeavours in Academia, in April, but their dream is to put their proposal into action.

“We’re hoping to actually do this research in a lab one day and produce results, but at the moment it looks unfeasible because it would require a lot of funding,” said Mr. Salman.

“But we’d love to find a way for this to help the world,” added Ms. Duraid.

Future plans

Abedalaziz Mohammad Altawabini is pictured in front of a grey-green backdrop.
Abedalaziz Mohammad Altawabini
Photo: Submitted

Although the four students all enrolled at Memorial together three years ago, Mr. Mohamed and Mr. Salman will complete their undergraduate studies this summer.

They both plan to work on their Canadian citizenship so they can apply to Memorial’s medical doctor program at the Faculty of Medicine.

In the meantime, both are considering graduate studies.

Mr. Mohamed is interested in cancer research, while Mr. Salman would like to study immunology and infectious diseases.

Mr. Altawabini hopes to attend dental school while Ms. Duraid’s goals include pursuing an MD from Memorial and being involved in research alongside her clinical work.

“As international students, we all would like to stay at Memorial because we have made friends here,” said Mr. Salman. “We have also made connections with professors, others in the university and in the community. During the pandemic we worked on this from different countries and time zones. So, even if we end up far away from each other, I know that we will still manage somehow to continue working together.”

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