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Student Profile: Alaa Al-Shaer
Molecular Biology and Biochemistry doctoral student in the Faculty of Science
I was born and raised in the Lower Mainland, but spent five years in Beirut Lebanon during my secondary school years. Currently, I am a PhD candidate in the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry department working under the supervision of Professor Nancy Forde. In my spare time, I enjoy hiking, painting, and playing volleyball.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO COME TO SFU?
I completed my BSc degree in Biological Physics at SFU, and completed my honours thesis with Dr. Forde. My project on collagen type IV, which was done in collaboration with the Hudson group at Vanderbilt University, paved the way for my graduate research project. It was an easy decision to pursue my graduate studies at SFU and work with Professor Nancy Forde again.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR RESEARCH OR YOUR PROGRAM TO A FAMILY MEMBER?
Collagen, the most abundant protein in mammalian organisms, is an extracellular structure found outside of our cells. Its evolution coincides with the emergence of multicellular organisms, showcasing its importance in joining cells together to form tissues and organs. If you were to collect an organ and remove the cellular compartments, you will find that the structure of the organ remains essentially unchanged. This shows that the shape and form of tissues are largely dictated by the extracellular matrix. This molecular glue, at its basic structural unit, is a rope-like molecule that assembles into larger structures to form a scaffold. These smart scaffolds, composed of collagen and other extracellular proteins, form the basis of a basement membrane. The basement membrane is a specialized form of extracellular matrix and serves as a permeability barrier, cellular anchoring site, and barrier against cancer metastasis. Its biomechanical properties have been shown to influence cellular behavior and response. My research aims to exploit single-molecule biophysics techniques to study how collagen, at its different hierarchical levels of organization, can balance its structural stability with responsiveness to physiologically relevant environmental changes. In doing so, I aim to gain a better understanding of how basement membranes are organized into scaffolds with regulatory functions.
WHAT ARE YOU PARTICULARLY ENJOYING ABOUT YOUR STUDIES/RESEARCH AT SFU?
I particularly enjoy the opportunity to attend conferences and seminars to meet people. The Physics department at SFU is home to a strong biophysics community which organizes weekly seminars given by biophysics researchers. It is a fantastic way to meet and discuss science with people, and exposes us to the wide-range of biophysics research that is currently happening across the globe.
HAVE YOU BEEN THE RECIPIENT OF ANY MAJOR OR DONOR-FUNDED AWARDS? IF SO, PLEASE TELL US WHICH ONES AND A LITTLE ABOUT HOW THE AWARDS HAVE IMPACTED YOUR STUDIES AND/OR RESEARCH.
I have been fortunate to receive the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Postgraduate Scholarship – Doctoral (PGS D) in the Summer of 2021. In the past, I have received departmental Graduate Fellowships and the Weyerhauser Graduate Scholarship. These awards have allowed me to focus my time solely on my research, rather than having to teach each term to support myself financially.
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