Sarah Halawa, PhD student and alumna of The American University in Cairo (AUC) was recently awarded first prize for her project on the genetic basis of cardiovascular disease in the Egyptian population, submitted to a rheumatic heart disease conference co-organized by the Magdi Yacoub Foundation and Aswan Heart Centre as well as the Pan-African Society of Cardiology. Halawa and her team were also awarded the Young Investigator award for the same project. “I always wanted to pursue a research topic that would benefit my country, Egypt,” Halawa explained, saying that her current research with the Magdi Yacoub Foundation fulfills her dream.At the conference, held in January, titled Rheumatic Heart Disease: From Molecules to the Global Community, Halawa’s project concentrated specifically on valve interstitial cells, which play a major role in physiological conditions of the heart including rheumatic heart disease. Halawa and her supervisors worked primarily on the analysis of DNA data, partnering with the Harefield Heart Science Centre at the Imperial College London. The conference showcased studies on diverse topics and included internationally produced work from countries such as Namibia, New Zealand and Guatemala.
A seasoned AUC scholar, Halawa previously earned her bachelor’s in electronics engineering with a minor in mathematics and was presented with the President’s Cup in 2011, awarded to the top-performing student in the graduating class. She also earned her master’s in physics from AUC in 2014, graduating with highest honors. During her time at AUC, she participated as a micro-projects committee member with the former student club, Alashanek Ya Balady, which sought to help in sustainably achieving social and economic development in Ain El Seera. She also previously helped in organizing a blood donation campaign with the Help Club. She then decided to pursue her PhD in applied sciences with a specialization in biotechnology.
“I’ll always be grateful for Dr. Ahmed Moustafa for encouraging me to join the program,” said Halawa.
Moustafa, director of the biotechnology graduate program, encouraged Halawa to apply to the PhD program in biotechnology, despite her concerns about coming from a different academic background. She viewed a shift to this field as an important opportunity to have a direct impact on societal challenges in Egypt.
Moustafa was also key in helping Halawa obtain funding for her PhD studies, supervising her on a joint research venture between AUC and the Magdi Yacoub Foundation. This research project allowed Halawa to seek funding from the Al Alfi PhD Fellowship in Applied Sciences and Engineering. “I felt a lot of warmth from the Al Alfi Foundation,” Halawa said, “It is because of their continuous support and encouragement that I am able to work toward my PhD at AUC.”
In their research, Halawa and Moustafa collaborated with Yasmine Aguib, deputy director of research of the Magdi Yacoub Foundation. The product of this research, an abstract titled “Beyond Genetics: Profiling Genome-wide DNA Methylation Patterns in Human Aortic and Mitral Valves,” was the project featured this past January in the Rheumatic Heart Disease conference and awarded first place.
She is now continuing to work with Moustafa and Aguib in the hopes of identifying the key genes and other relevant players responsible for vital heart functionalities. “The objective of this endeavor,” specified Halawa, “is to discover genetic mutations specific to the Egyptian population that cause cardiovascular disease and propose molecular interventions for prediction, diagnosis and treatment.” In her work, she continues to make use of her strong computational and mathematical background as well as her PhD training.
Looking to the future, Halawa aspires to establish a research program to better understand the genetic basis of other major diseases in Egypt. “I wish to promote translational medicine in Egypt where we can take scientific research to the clinic with the goal of improving the public health of the Egyptian people,” she declared.