FACULTY IN FOCUS
Meet the Effervescent Bioengineer Tackling Cancer One Step at a Time.
For Professor Dana Alsulaiman, Saudi Arabia is home. She spent her childhood in the Kingdom before the pursuit of her academic career took her to new lands, from high school in Canada to a postdoc in the United States at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) via her undergraduate and Ph.D. studies at Imperial College London. “Finally, after fourteen years,” she beams, “I’m back in Saudi Arabia.” Through all of these moves and academic achievements, she has been driven by two things: a love for science and technology, and the possibility of alleviating the suffering of others.
It was while she was at MIT during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic that Alsulaiman began to feel she had been away from home for long enough. During her Ph.D. studies, she visited KAUST and had a chance encounter with Vice President for Research, Professor Pierre Magistretti, who was then Dean of the Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering (BESE) division. Magistretti sowed a promising seed when he expressed support for Alsulaiman’s area of research, encouraging her to finish her Ph.D. then “‘go and get a good postdoc and come work with us.’” So that’s what she did.
Alsulaiman’s area of research is the development of biosensing technologies that can enhance the ability of physicians and clinicians to detect cancer in its early stages and to choose the most effective therapies, namely by detecting minimally-invasive biomarkers like microRNA. While the science itself is more than enough to propel her through each day, Alsulaiman doesn’t hide the personal vendetta she has against cancer, a disease that has affected many of her loved ones. She hopes her work will create the opportunity not just to spare other families the same pain, but to provide early detection and more effective and personalized treatments to a wider range of people.
Cancer detection typically requires the use of invasive strategies and complicated, cumbersome machines at highly specialized hospitals, which is why Alsulaiman wants the technology she develops to allow for more portable and user-friendly biosensing devices that can be reliably used by any physician in any corner of the world, even in resource-limited settings. “It’s been kind of like a race towards a more sensitive, versatile and effective technology,” she says, “and with every project I feel like I’m inching one step closer.”
Alsulaiman considers herself fortunate to be in a position not just to advance the field of STEM, locally and globally, but to instill the same determination and gratitude in her students. One of her favorite aspects of the job is teaching, and her passion for it shines through as she speaks; “I especially love when students have that ‘aha’ moment,” she says, referring to her new Biosensing Materials class, in which she teaches students with both bioengineering and materials science backgrounds. She attributes some of her love for imparting knowledge to the Kauffman Teaching Certification Program she completed at MIT to further develop her pedagogical approach in the classroom environment.
As a fairly recent addition to the faculty at KAUST, Alsulaiman is still in the process of setting-up her lab, recruiting students and hiring postdocs. Despite all her responsibilities, however, she tries to make time to unwind, and finds particular solace in the outdoors. She has fond memories of spending time on the family farm in Madinah when she was younger, or fishing with her family at the beach. This love for nature only grew stronger when she had the opportunity to explore it in other countries. She also has a love of music, and a dedicated corner of her house where she can sing, and play her keyboard, guitar or ukulele. “Music compliments a scientific mindset,” she attests, as if prepared to challenge anyone who might argue otherwise.
Although it has led to her spending much of her life so far away, she attributes her love for science to her mother, who challenged Alsulaiman with interesting engineering problems when she was a child. “That really got me into thinking outside the box, more as an engineer.” Now, after an education that has taken her around the world, a big benefit to accepting a role at KAUST has been the opportunity to be back in her home country near her family. “I love being back here,” she grins; “I’m so excited about all the new things I’m going to discover and all the new people I’m going to meet in Saudi Arabia.”