When she lost a relative to cancer ten years ago, the Egyptian cancer researcher Sara Hegy Ahmed got motivated to confront this disease through research and discovery of advanced treatment methods.
The tragic loss of her relative, a young bride-to-be, was a turning point in Ahmed’s academic career. After she got a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and biological sciences at the German University in Cairo, she completed her graduate studies in cancer research in Germany, at the University of Heidelberg and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ). The latter institution awarded her a Richtzenhain Doctoral Prize in 2021.
In a Zoom interview, Ahmed told Al-Fanar Media: “My young relative’s illness was an additional motive to employ science to produce knowledge on how to treat cancer, in the hope of ultimately contributing to improving the lives of patients. Research acquires its importance from its role to help people lead better lives.”
In her master’s and doctoral research, Ahmed discovered that sex hormones can affect non-sex organs, such as the gut.
“Sex hormones’ effects are not limited to sex organs only, but also affect other organs such as the intestines,” she said. “These hormones go to intestinal stem cells and divide, leading the tumor to grow.”
She added: “Previous studies had not linked sex hormones to tumor size. They used to believe that the presence of high concentrations of sex hormones in non-sex organs such as the digestive system was normal. However, my research shows there is a link between these hormones and tumors in this part of the body.”
“My young relative’s illness was an additional motive to employ science to produce knowledge on how to treat cancer, in the hope of ultimately contributing to improving the lives of patients.”Sara Hegy
Egyptian cancer researcher
Customized Cancer Therapies
Ahmed said her findings could help doctors to better customize therapies to influence the behavior of stem cells that contribute to tumor growth.
“It is known that sex hormones usually affect sexual organs such as the breast,” she said. “However, I found that female sex hormones have effects on non-sex organs such as the pancreas.”
Sex hormones help organs absorb nutrients, she said. … “But in case of cancer, they also affect the size of a tumor, leading it to grow.”
Ahmed plans to continue her research at the University of Utah. She wants to study the impact of protein intake on tumor growth.
Struggles with Depression
During her master’s and doctoral studies, Ahmed faced great difficulties, which left her depressed and caused her to constantly question her own abilities. However, she believes that her struggles to overcome depression without medication were “the most important motivation” to complete her research and training.
“Now, I think depression was the best thing that had happened to me,” she said. “It helped me stick to my research goal, created a great passion, and made me always look for the means of support needed in difficult times.”
Ahmed said that among the support means that helped her overcome difficulties were “self-motivation, the nurturing environment provided by her supervisor, and leadership training programs.”
Difficulties for Women Scientists
Amal Amin, an assistant professor of nanotechnology at Egypt’s National Research Centre, said Egyptian women who seek a career in science face considerable pressure. One of the biggest difficulties is the stereotype that women scholars’ primary responsibility is to be mothers and to raise children, she told Al-Fanar Media in a phone call.
“Efforts to support young researchers and women are still limited,” Amin said.
Amin is the founder of the Women in Science Without Borders initiative. Its goal, she said, is “to empower young scientists of both sexes to achieve their ambitions, encourage cooperation between science, industry, civil society, and decision-makers, and raise the level of public awareness of science.” (See a related article, “Amal Amin: An Egyptian Scholar Seeks Equity for All in Research and Science”.)
A goal of the Women in Science Without Borders initiative is “to empower young scientists of both sexes to achieve their ambitionsAmal Amin
A professor of nanotechnology and founder of Women in Science Without Borders
She continued: “One of the main problems facing women scientists is how to enhance cooperation between men and women, in addition to the possible lack of mentorship, or successful professional networks that may help better exchange experiences and best practices.”
“Encouraging joint projects and networks between genders, through funding, is one of the main solutions to enhance the work of Arab women scientists in general,” she said. “This requires both sexes to have equal opportunities, build bridges between them after changing mentalities, and change stereotypes about the image and personality of the ideal leader.”
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Ahmed agrees with Amin on the importance of more cooperation. “We need to build leadership training programs, such as those that helped me overcome difficult periods during my research,” she said. “I am currently working on implementing and designing such programs for those facing similar difficulties.”
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