Former HCC student now working toward bioengineering doctorate at MIT

May 13, 2024

Photo courtesy of Riyam Al Msari -- Riyam Al Msari shown here on the grounds of MIT.

When Riyam Al Msari was studying at Houston Community College (HCC) a few years ago, she could have never imagined where she would be today.

She is now on the cusp of a very bright future as she works toward a Ph.D. in biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). What’s more, she recently won a $90,000 fellowship to help fund her degree.

It was not an easy journey for Al Msari. She grew up in war-torn Iraq during the early 2000’s and, at eight years old, faced displacement when her family's home was destroyed during a shelling attack on her neighborhood. Her family found themselves relocated to Iraq’s Kurdistan Province where she encountered discrimination based on her ethnicity and gender.

Al Msari's father sought and was granted political asylum in the United States in 2016. Shortly after his departure, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and Al Msari – then just 18 – became her mom’s caregiver.

When the family reunited two years later, she settled in Houston. Al Msari enrolled at HCC, hoping to begin studies toward becoming a dentist. Along the way, she met with her academic advisor, David Franklin, and the two discussed Al Msari’s overwhelming desire to contribute to the fight against cancer – in large part from witnessing her mother’s ordeal.

“When I told Mr. Franklin my story about wanting to do something related to cancer, he mentioned other career routes I might take,” Al Msari said. “That led to where I am now. I see that I can contribute to making a change with what I am learning.”

At HCC, Al Msari’s excelled in her courses while still acclimating to her new American lifestyle. She found support by joining The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), a program that encourages critical thinking, teamwork and leadership. It also helped her make friends in a new country, she said, as she and other students worked on projects, explored problems and shared ideas.

Al Msari moved on to a four-year degree after applying to and being accepted by the highly ranked University of California San Diego (UCSD). She excelled in her studies there and was accepted at MIT, a university thought by many to be among the world’s greatest.

Her challenging doctoral work is focused on changing the standard of care for cancer treatment through protein engineering that improves immune system responses. The idea is to better target and treat cancers, she said. 

Al Msari has been rewarded for her ideas and hard work. She recently received a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. It provides $90,000 in support over the next two years. About 30 fellows are chosen from thousands of applicants for their exemplary academic performance and potential to make meaningful contributions to the United States.

Besides her studies, Al Msari is active in MIT student organizations and serves as diversity chair in the biological engineering program board.

In her down time, she sometimes reflects on how she and other students gathered atop an HCC campus parking garage to watch sunsets and talk about their classes, adventures and futures.

“Those are great memories for me,” she said.

She credits her time at HCC for playing a big part in allowing doors to open and a future that is bright.

“It helped me navigate difficult questions, think critically about solutions and overcome challenges,” she said. “I value that greatly and I carry it with me.”

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