Robed in tie-dye lab coat, graduate student Norah Ashoura meticulously guides her pipette while explaining what Star Wars has to do with the innovative research into cancer treatments coming from the George Georgiou lab group.
Norah joined the Cell and Molecular Biology graduate program over two years ago. Before moving to Austin, she grew up in humid Florida (despite being, as she says, genealogically "100% desert" with parents from Tunisia and Lebanon) and studied biochemistry at Florida Institute of Technology on the Space Coast.
Ashoura recently won the Science in Plain English contest, sponsored by UT's Science Communications Interest Group, by giving remarks comparing cancer to Darth Vader and the hapless immune system to Jedi Knights in the Star Wars universe. She won a trip to one of the largest gatherings of scientists, which is happening this week, the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
What are you researching in the lab?
I work in cancer immunotherapy, generating medicine that will allow patients to use their own immune systems to fight cancer.
Bodies are programmed to tell when a cell is good or bad. Cancer cells are obviously bad but have developed many mechanisms to avoid being noticed. One of the mechanisms that we focus on in this lab is kynurenine, a molecule that is over-produced by many cancers, especially aggressive ones. Kynurenine acts to "turn off" immune cells, preventing them from distinguishing a cancer cell from a healthy cell.
We are developing a drug that chews up kynurenine, unmasking cancer's shield and allowing the immune system to do what it is designed to do after millions and millions of years of evolution: attack.
What led you to the contest and to the analogy you used for your research?
I really enjoy simplifying my work into something that is elegant. I love relaying science to the general public—the beneficiaries who fund much of the work. A Pew Research-AAAS study found that people trust that scientists are intelligent but don't trust scientists on science-related issues; I think that the public's enthusiasm has been reduced by propaganda against sciences, like the misinformation about climate change. I see my involvement in science communication — like the Science in Plain English contest—as a way to help change this culture.
To explain the uniqueness of what we are doing, I used a Star Wars analogy and imagined cancer as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Both have a secret identity and are generally bad….The rest of a patient's body is similar to everyone else in the Star Wars universe: they have no idea that the interloper is cancerous. The enzyme—our treatment—gives the knowledge of the movie audience back to the body, allowing it to activate and assault the cancer as it should.
What do you do for fun?
I speak in Elvish! But seriously, I really enjoy being in this lab. It is a microcosm of the best aspects of scientific community; everyone is super nice, familial, and has so much expertise. I like to camp, paint, and read, especially fantasy books. I also invest my energy in debate, which I started in high school in Fort Lauderdale. Crockett High School, which when compared to other schools is not brimming with opportunity, did not have a team, so I volunteer as a debate coach. I work with English teacher Amanda Tremaine, and we now have ten students and hope to have them in competition by the end of the year.
Watch Norah deliver her winning remarks: