Doing it all
May Abdelaziz, a VCU Alumni 10 Under 10 honoree, excels as a researcher, mother and teacher.
By Leah Small
For VCU SoP News
A single word half-heard during a phone call with a colleague led May Abdelaziz, Ph.D., on a search for insights on the causes of bacterial resistance in superbugs.
It’s the sort of connection that led the 2013 alum of VCU School of Pharmacy to be named one of VCU’s 10 Under 10 alumni for 2021.
Abdelaziz — a founding faculty member at the Ben and Maytee Fisch College School of Pharmacy, University of Texas at Tyler — was tired and, she recalled, “half-listening in the office after a long day at work” during that conversation three years ago with Aurijit Sarkar, Ph.D., assistant professor of basic pharmaceutical sciences at High Point University.
Sarkar, a fellow VCU alum, was discussing his work on kinases, which are enzymes that prompt cell processes in a variety of organisms. In bacteria, the enzymes can signal the bacteria to develop defenses against antibiotics, such as thickening cell walls, to create a stronger barrier against therapies. The result can be scary “super bugs” that can cause deadly infections like in sepsis and pneumonia.
Sakar spoke of published papers about unusual changes in bacterial kinases found in samples researchers took from patients infected with super bugs.
“He mentioned the word ‘mutations,’ which caught my attention,” Abdelaziz said. “I got hooked.”
Abelaziz asked what these mutations were and what they do. Sarkar didn’t have any answers, and there were no hints in publications by other researchers.
But during the call, Abdelaziz considered potential biological clues including how the bacterial mutations could be similar to those seen in cancers.
“It suddenly clicked with me,” she said. “From my background researching cancer, I have seen how human kinases mutate leading to the initiation of cancer, or affect the efficacy of cancer treatment.”
A broad body of research shows that kinase mutations enable cancer cells to outsmart chemotherapies and other treatments, which can lead to the cancer metastasizing to other parts of the body. To combat this, scientists have developed therapies engineered to target human kinase mutations that emerge during cancer progression.
However, not much is known about the role of mutations in bacterial kinases, Abdelaziz said. Could the mutations Sarkar found in bacterial kinases cause antibiotic resistance, she wondered, just as mutations in human kinases during cancer cause metastasis?
To dig for answers, Abdelaziz applied for a National Institutes of Health grant to study how kinase mutations may affect bacterial functions. She received the grant in 2020.
Abdelaziz uses her expertise in cancer research to draw helpful parallels between human and bacterial kinases, which could lead to the development of therapies. Targeting bacterial kinase mutations may slow down antibiotic-resistant super bugs, increasing the efficacy of frontline antibiotics in these patients, said Abdelaziz.
“Usually, what people did with antibiotic resistance is that they tried to develop more antibiotics, so when the bacteria changed we hit it with something stronger,” Abdelaziz said. “But to really understand how bacteria develops resistance might be more rewarding, because instead of hitting it with more toxic stuff, you can instead inhibit the mechanism that makes bacteria more resistant.”
10 Under 10
Bacterial resistance is one of many aspects of pharmaceutical science Abdelaziz pursues. And her contributions to the field go beyond the lab.
In 2021, Abdelaziz was recognized as a VCU Alumni 10 under 10 honoree. The awards program recognizes noteworthy achievements by alumni who earned their first VCU degree, at any level, within the previous 10 years.
Abdelaziz came to the U.S. from Egypt in 2008 as a Ph.D. student in the VCU School of Pharmacy, where she worked in the lab of Umesh Desai, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry, and discovered her interest in drug development.
“Usually, what people did with antibiotic resistance is that they tried to develop more antibiotics. But to really understand how bacteria develops resistance might be more rewarding.”
— May Abdelaziz, Ph.D.
VCU 10 Under 10 recipient
Abdelaziz’s contributions to the lab’s published research earned her the Charles T. Rector and Thomas W. Rorrer Jr. Dean’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Study — the VCU School of Pharmacy’s highest accolade for a graduate student.
During her early professional success, Abdelaziz balanced her research with mothering a baby and adjusting to residing in a new country, which impressed Desai.
“May was conscientious and highly focused,” Desai said. “Prioritizing both finishing her graduate work within five years and being a parent. This level of resolve and focus makes her a role model I wish more students would emulate.”
She has continued to elegantly maintain her work-life balance as a mother of two, researcher and teacher since arriving at the University of Texas at Tyler in 2018.
After each work day ends, Abdelaziz starts what she calls her “second career” when she picks up her children from school. Much of her evening is centered on cooking, school activities and enjoying the company of her children. She often resumes teaching and research work left over from the day when her children have gone to bed.
“I feel that time is very precious with your kids because once they grow up, they leave home; they’re gone,” she said. “So, you really need to invest time with them.”
Mindful of her experience and the challenges women and minorities face in academia and STEM, Abdelaziz recruits and mentors underrepresented students with an interest in research. Sometimes a consideration as simple as meeting scheduling flexibility for meetings and lab work can help mothers considering pharmaceutical research, Abdelaziz said.
“Many women who want to go into research, especially in a pharmacy doctorate program, have families,” Abdelaziz said. “They have little kids, are struggling with daycare, and always have a deadline to catch. Plus, they are studying full-time in pharmacy school, a very rigorous program.”
Abdelaziz helps students find and apply for grants, scholarships and other funding opportunities. She also hires promising undergraduates to work in her lab, to begin learning the confounding, yet gratifying, process of scientific research.
“I’ve been blessed with excellent mentors at VCU and in my professional career moving forward. … So I want to extend that blessing to other people as well,” Abdelaziz said. “Whether it’s financial support or professional mentorship, I want them to feel that they are well taken care of because science can be frustrating.”
Abdelaziz also builds her students collaboration and problem-solving skills through team-based learning — a teaching method that empowers students to work together to solve their own problems, with minimal input from instructors. In recognition of her excellence in mentorship and teaching, Abdelaziz was named Teacher of the Year for the Fisch College of Pharmacy in 2019.
In the future, Abdelaziz plans to expand her studies of bacterial kinases beyond test tubes to life organisms, and to continue teaching, which she calls a passion “almost equal to research.”