AUC’s biotechnology alum is researching COVID-19 drug leads  

By Yakin Ouederni

Reem Al Olaby (MSc ’11, PhD ’14) has one secret to her success: “It’s never too late to try something new.” 

And that’s why she hasn’t taken a rest since the day she earned her PhD in biotechnology from AUC. 

Kickstarting her career in medical sciences at AUC and venturing to different institutes in the United States and Qatar, Al Olaby is now an assistant professor at California Northstate University, where she teaches pharmacology, neuroscience, biochemistry, biology, and advanced cell and molecular biology. Over the years, most of her research has focused on developing drugs, most notably identifying drug leads against hepatitis C, malaria and Fragile X neurodegenerative disorder. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she once again delved into new territory.

 “I felt that I should start learning more about the pandemic and help raise awareness of it,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why not use the expertise I have on drug discovery and do something?’” 

Al Olaby has used her social media platforms to post videos where she busts myths about the coronavirus and explains the use of certain drugs to treat it. She also writes blog posts in English and Arabic to inform her followers of different developments and safety tips.

“I plan to do more videos about new discoveries, new drugs, the importance of face masks and more,” she said. 

Working on a team with other researchers and some of her students, Al Olaby is using computational biology to find drug leads for COVID-19. While this research is still in its early stages, Al Olaby is keen on producing an impactful outcome soon. 

“This time, I’m really determined to make sure that once I get something beneficial, I will do all that it takes to make it reach the bedside by finding the possible funds and sponsors,” she said. “It’s not just about patenting and revenue. It’s about reaching the people that need to benefit from such drugs.”

Her work on COVID-19 isn’t limited to the sciences. A long-time advocate of diversity in the workplace, delivering lectures about racism in health care and health disparities, Al Olaby has been giving talks about the disproportionate effects of the virus and how it should be used as a wake-up call to eliminate biases in health care and the workplace.

“Viruses do not discriminate, but minorities and marginalized populations don’t have the same quality of health care as privileged communities,” she explained. 

And while the pandemic has shifted her in new directions for her research, Al Olaby’s life as a university professor didn’t change too much. She was already using a blended approach in her classes, a mix of face-to-face and prerecorded lectures. 

“The transition wasn’t that hard for me,” she said. “I continued doing the same thing I already do in class, so the students weren’t impacted too much.” 

When it comes to things Al Olaby does outside of the classroom, the list goes on. Whether it’s giving talks about diversity, encouraging people to be global citizens, helping college students with postgraduate decisions, building homes with Habitat for Humanity or taking up taekwondo with her family, Al Olaby always finds a way. 

“It is never too late to learn something new, and nothing is impossible. Go after your aspirations, and visualize your success,” advised Al Olaby. 

Al Olaby credits her time at AUC for helping her realize her fervor for achievement and commitment to service. “AUC was a life-changer for me,” she said. “My professors inspired me to be the professor I am today. Being a faculty member is a true blessing because we have the chance to inspire generations and leave a positive imprint in people’s lives.”

Her love for public health flourished at AUC as she took part in different competitions and campaigns, including one where she raised awareness of hepatitis C. 

“This all gave me the experience that I’m using right now: the ability to share my ideas with others, public speaking, being a well-rounded researcher and looking at problems differently,” she said. 

After AUC, in 2017, Al Olaby earned her master’s in public health from The George Washington University. 

For Al Olaby, every class she teaches, every research project she conducts, every drug lead she finds and every personal decision she makes is grounded by her pride in who she is and her acceptance of diversity in all its forms. “I always introduce myself as Syrian-Egyptian,” she said. “Be proud of who you are. It will impact your charisma, your confidence and how others treat you. Going around so much has made me resilient, more accepting of constructive feedback and different ideas. It made me appreciate the richness of diversity.” 

So whether it’s finding that drug for the coronavirus, searching for new ways to give back to her community or taking up another new activity, Al Olaby knows one thing for sure: She’s not anywhere close to stopping just yet. 

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