From a small town in Lebanon to cancer research

When Mayassa Bou-Dargham, a postdoctoral fellow in Penn’s Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, received a pilot project grant, a banner was hung in her Lebanese hometown. Getting there took years of determination, self-confidence and, in small part, fate.

Mayassa Bou-Dargham, a postdoctoral fellow in Penn’s Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, 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 Ph.D. 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 explains. “So I had to live at home or live with friends.” Bou-Dargham did go on to receive her B.S. in biochemistry from the Lebanese University.

Mayassa Bou-Dargham.
Mayassa-Bou-Dargham, postdoctoral fellow in Penn’s Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News)

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.

Fate intervened. One of her professors at the Lebanese University received her Ph.D. 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.

Her mother 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 recalls, 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 Ph.D. degrees in biochemistry at Florida State. Her dissertation on cancer and immune evasion resulted in several published articles, including four first-author papers.

For her postdoctoral 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.

She found a postdoctoral position in the lab of Youhai Chen at Penn but soon discovered he was leaving for a position in China. She was then able to join the lab of Warren Pear, 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.

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 postdoctoral grant last year. Bou-Dargham was one of five who received a grant, out of 22 submissions. 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.

This story is by Sally Sapega. Read more at Penn Medicine News.