Research Opportunities Bring Student Closer to Her Dream

How does a young, Muslim woman from an island off the coast of Kenya get to do cancer research at a Harvard lab? Through hard work, a positive attitude, and the support of family and friends, such as her mentors at Moravian.

After working as a volunteer at an orphanage for children with AIDS, Kanizeh Fatema Visram '10 was inspired to do more; she is working toward a doctorate in pharmacy.

Like many college students, Kanizeh Fatema Visram '10 wants to make a difference in the lives of others. Motivated to help AIDS-afflicted children, she left her home in Mombasa, Kenya, three years ago for Moravian College, where she now majors in biochemistry and pre-pharmacy. Her brothers, Aliraza and Altaf, who also graduated from Lehigh Valley area colleges, work to help support their younger sister and her dream of achieving a doctorate in pharmacy.

Kanizeh began honing her research skills through a 2008 SOAR project on the effects of selenium on Parkinson's disease, advised by Cecilia Fox, associate professor of biological sciences. That experience, along with letters of recommendation by Professors Fox, Christopher Jones, associate professor of biology, and Shari Dunham, assistant professor of chemistry, helped Kanizeh earn an internship with Harvard's renowned Stem Cell Institute in Boston. Only 25 of 400 applicants were accepted into the program.

Working with Richard M. White in the Zon lab last summer, Kanizeh explored the spread of melanoma skin cancer cells in zebrafish to obtain a better understanding of tumor migration. Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, occurs when pigment cells (melanocytes) are altered, causing them to become cancerous. The hypothesis of her experiment was that the genes that control neural crest migration during early embryonic development become activated in melanoma progression. The research is one small, but critical step toward the development of drugs to treat advanced melanoma—and perhaps more.

Hands-on research opportunities at Harvard and Moravian have been invaluable to Kanizeh, as well. Besides learning advanced experimental techniques and problem-solving skills, she has become more certain than ever of her goal. "I want to use my knowledge to help children in the developing world, who are dying due to the inaccessibility of drugs and medical care," she says. "Life is about so much more than ourselves."