Providing new research for low-income, underserved communities

Grace Milauskas
October 11, 2021
Alhaji Janneh, GCS Ph.D. candidate

Everyone’s path in life is different: some find their calling early on, and others find their spark later. For biomedical Ph.D. student Alhaji Janneh, his spark came from his innate curiosity as a child and his eagerness to solve the unknown – which is one of the main reasons he decided to go into the field of science. When in high school, he had his first introduction to cancer in his biology class. “It made me realize how significant it is to understand the root cause of the disease,” said Janneh.

In 2012, Janneh moved from the coast of Sierra Leone to Hampton, Virginia, where he attended Hampton University on a full academic scholarship. The first few days were unbearable, mainly due to weather and the food, said Janneh. But with the help of friends and a family atmosphere at Hampton University, he was able to cope. In addition, Janneh said, “I experienced my first ever snow that year at Hampton—I literally went outside just to touch and feel the snowfall.”

Growing up in underprivileged communities for most of his life, Janneh saw firsthand the devasting impact of cancer in those communities. Unfortunately, low-income communities have the highest death rate for most cancer types, and he wants his research to help reduce that tormenting fact. His long-term goal is to utilize his current graduate school training at MUSC to advance his scientific career in academia, focusing on understanding signaling pathways involved in cancer metastasis.

His research experience started in his undergraduate years. He joined Dr. Michelle Claville’s research lab and focused on understanding the effects of free radicals such as peroxynitrite and hypochlorite on methionine and the impact on age-related diseases. This study resulted in a poster presentation at the 71st Joint Annual Meeting of the Beta Kappa Chi and the National Institute of Science at Prairie View A&M University, Houston, Texas.

While at Hampton, he was also accepted into Virginia Tech and UCLA’s Summer Undergraduate Research Programs during the 2013 and 2014 summers. His internship at Virginia Tech in Dr. Michael Philen’s lab presented the opportunity for his first scientific publication. He presented his research project from Virginia Tech on smart biomaterials at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington, D.C., and won first place for his poster presentation.

For his one-year master’s program at Brandeis University, he worked in Dr. Bruce Goode’s lab to understand the molecular basis of actin cytoskeleton remodeling in yeast. The project focus was to elucidate the intracellular transport of secretory vesicles on actin chains. This understanding is clinically relevant for neuromuscular disorders like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

For his current Ph.D. training at MUSC, he is studying signaling mechanisms in cancer metastasis under Dr. Besim Ogretmen, an internationally recognized scientist in the cancer biology field. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, the Ogretmen lab wanted to contribute to the field to help end the pandemic. As the lead author of this study, Janneh discovered a novel sphingolipid biomarker that can predict symptomatic vs. asymptomatic COVID-19 patients. This study was published in Scientific Reports on July 9, 2021, and has since gained impressive online attention with an altimetric score of over 200 with 15,000 accesses to date.

“I hope to advance cancer therapeutics by discovering specific molecular pathways and novel therapeutic targets in metastasized cancers. I also want to advocate for the recognition and solution of health disparities and the accessibility of cancer treatments and preventions to all, especially to the underprivileged populations,” said Janneh.

We asked Alhaji to share some of his thoughts about science and his MUSC experiences.

What drives your commitment to science?

The pure joy of solving a real-life disease - jigsaw puzzles - that will ultimately help humankind is what motivates me to do science. In the lab, I enjoy the creativity and the innovative skills that science offers me in solving problems. Indeed, science gives me a sense of wonder and the desire to learn and understand complex diseases.

How has your experience at MUSC and the College of Graduate Studies impacted your approach to science and opportunities for the future?

My MUSC experience has been invaluable. While at MUSC, I have developed both technical and professional skills needed to become an independent scientist. The interdisciplinary curriculum provided by the College of Graduate Studies allows me to integrate novel ideas and make connections across different fields in solving a research question—which has really deepened my learning experiences. The emphasis on research collaboration at MUSC has also strengthened my scientific reasoning skills. As a graduate student, I have the opportunity to collaborate with faculty members from other research institutions around the country.

Going forward, what things do you think MUSC and CGS should be focusing on for the future?

I think MUSC and CGS should focus more on career counseling events for their graduate students. For instance, at what stage should a Ph.D. student start applying for a post-doc position? How can a Ph.D. student search for post-doc positions? And where to search? What about those students that are interested in industry positions? When can they start applying for such positions? I believe these are some of the questions that could be answered in a frequent career counseling event for graduate students at MUSC. In addition, a career coach at the CGS office would also be invaluable to graduate students.

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