Professor Adam Avery knows all about the growing star in his research lab at Oakland University, he was the one who discovered it.
“I recruited Sarah because I knew she was going to be an outstanding researcher,” Avery said of Clinton Township OU PhD student Sarah Denha.
“She’s very driven,” Avery added. “You immediately get that idea from her and that’s very important in research because things don’t always go to plan. “
He also knows her story of resilience and how she convinced her parents to leave Iraq and build a new life in America.
“It’s very impressive,” Avery said.
Denha and her family immigrated to the United States from Iraq in 2013, weeks before she graduated from high school. Since she was 18 when they arrived in California, she was too old to finish high school there. So, she spent the first year in her new country perfecting her English and getting her GED. Being the only one in her family to quickly master the language, she also took on the burden of finding a home for her family and settling them. After moving to Michigan a year later, Denha attended Macomb Community College and then transferred to OU, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.
She always believed that she would become a doctor.
In Iraq, any student who gets the kind of grades she got usually goes to medical school. She also loved science and wanted to do something that helped people. So she went with the plan, and in 2019 enrolled in the UO’s master’s degree in chemistry program in order to gain admission to the University of Michigan Medical School.
Then she put on a lab coat and that all changed.
Once she started taking classes that led her to work in a lab, Denha discovered a passion for research and the role she plays in finding cures for the sick. Her zeal for research and a sudden desire to pursue it as a graduate student led her to Avery’s lab where she helped researchers working to create a treatment for spinocerebellar ataxia type 5, a rare disease. which causes degeneration of the spinal cord and cerebellum. .
She excelled in this work and, with Avery’s support, moved on to the OU Ph.D. biomedical sciences program the following year.
“I had no research experience (before graduate school), but through Avery’s mentorship and one-on-one interaction, I learned quickly,” she said. “I gained such self-confidence that within a year, I presented my work at the International American Society for Cell Biology conference. I did virtual conferences during COVID and met others interested in my area of research.
Last summer, she took a course in neuroscience at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), a private international center for research and education in biological and environmental sciences in Massachusetts. The MBL is affiliated with the University of Chicago and collaborates with many other institutions like the University of California, Berkley, and Yale University. In recent years, he has also been affiliated with more than 50 Nobel Laureates, including Roderick McKinnon.
Only 18 students were chosen for the program.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” said Denha, of the five-week neuroscience program. “It was a very eye-opening experience. I wanted to be exposed to a different kind of environment, a bigger lab and other people who were passionate about science.
She’s been through all of this and more.
“I started working with rats,” said the enthusiastic young scientist. “We are a fruit fly lab here.”
The summer course also gave her the opportunity to benchmark her work against her peers and, in addition to needing some work in her statistical data analysis, she is on the right track. Not only in terms of research skills, but also for his work investigating the molecular underpinnings of a neurological disease like spinocerebellar ataxia, which affects motor skills such as balance, coordination, and speech.
The disease is largely understudied and has no known cure, but Denha is doing its part to change that.
“I had never heard of the disease before joining Dr. Avery’s lab,” Denha said.
“Once I saw other areas of neuroscience, I realized why I love the research I’m doing now,” she said. “Once we know how neurons connect, we have to go down to the molecular level to find the source of the problems. Why is the cell not working properly? Is that the question I want to answer?
Working with other like-minded scientists has also broadened Denha’s network, and as a result, she and a student from another university will collaborate on a project in the future if she is accepted for the scholarship program at Denha. ‘university.
“Sarah was a great achievement,” said Avery, who initiated spinocerebellar ataxia type 5 research while doing her postdoctoral work. “She worked hard and seized opportunities to grow in her field. I think being accepted into an exclusive high caliber program like the MBL course really shows your potential as a scientist. She came back more confident, more motivated and with more identity as a scientist. ”
Earlier this year, Denha appeared with Avery as a co-author on a paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which provides data that other scientists can use in their research on the disease. However, for Denha, what she is doing is not just earning a doctorate or publishing a paper, but giving people hope for a better future.
“I lost my grandmother to breast cancer, but before she died she asked me, ‘Why was this happening? What are the causes?’ I could never answer him,” Denha said.
Now that she is a research scientist, she hopes to provide answers.
“I like the novelty of the research,” she said. “I love the challenge of looking at the data and trying to figure out what it means and I love knowing that my work has the power to positively impact people’s lives.”