Tahra received her BS in Zoology from Michigan State University and her MS in Molecular Cellular and Development Biology (MCDB) from the University of Michigan. She worked at the University of Michigan with the Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine (ULAM), after which she was recruited to serve as the Assistant Program Manager of Dr. Max Wicha’s cancer stem cell research laboratory at the University of Michigan. She was then recruited as lab manager to Dr. Cliff Cho’s cancer immunotherapy lab and now enjoys continuing her research career in the Lawlor lab focusing on in vivo studies on the mechanisms and targeted therapies of Ewing sarcoma tumorigenesis and metastasis.
What is your research on? Give us a little background
I started off actually very basic taking care of the research animals, that was my first real job and exposure to research right out of undergrad. Overall I’ve been in research for over 11 years now, from there I moved on to a research technician to assistant lab manager in a cancer stem cell breast cancer research lab. So kinda focusing on the cancer stem cells and then that took me to another group that does cancer therapy work, basically overall the major theme is I am really passionate about finding more natural cures for cancer. Not forcing someone to have to choose between quality or quantity of life like they do now with radiation and chemo, I mean we are getting a lot better with personalized medicine so that’s my passion, finding more targeted therapies for specific people and their cancer because no two cancers are similar no matter what cancer model.
What compelled you towards cancer research?
You know it kind of just found me, I didn’t really have this goal of going into research, I thought I would be more on the patient care side of it and that’s originally what I was aiming towards and then as soon as I started that first lab with the cancer stem cell work I just fell in love with research. Being able to contribute to science and medicine in that way has just become a passion.
What led you to become a research faculty mentor?
So we have to start somewhere and I think it can be intimidating to approach faculty and grad students and so as I began to work with students in a not so professional manner, just assisting them in a lab I became very aware of how scary it can be and I just became very passionate about helping people along their career path and being encouraging.
How do students contribute to your work?
So I love this question because I think it’s really important to know that it can be in any capacity that they want and I think the best mentors feel that way. It’s however much that student wants to participate - so it can be as simple as filing tips or the basic lab chores that are just as necessary or needed to keep the lab running smoothly or to doing their own research project, you know finding something that they’re passionate about in the lab and kind of overseeing that project, so in any capacity that the student wants to be involved.
With that being said how do you sort of lay out that norm? How do you communicate to them that they have a say in how they engage with the research when you’re discussing the project?
UROP students have never ceased to encourage me and inspire me and they are just the most talented and intelligent students, so right at the interview I try to gauge how interested they are and lay it out right there from the start before they’re actually in the lab with me. So from the start I let them know I am very approachable, I am here to support you and your career goals and however much you want to learn in the lab.
Can you recall a time that you had a great experience with one of your own mentors?
I was very lucky, I think one of the reasons I continued on this path in research is my first mentor was the lab manager, his name was Shawn, and he was extremely supportive from the start and I think it’s where I’ve gotten a lot of my values in research. He helped me from just starting off with no research experience really to helping me decide on whether or not I wanted to go and get my PhD or Masters or what was the right career path for me. And I think, again he’s one of the reasons why I believe some of the things I do and support students the way I do.
Do you and Shawn still keep in touch?
Oh absolutely! He’s moved on to industry now, but we occasionally still get lunch. We got so close that I have babysit his kids and he has dogsit for me. It’s beyond just supporting career wise, it’s supporting someone all around holistically, which I think U of M in general does a great job promoting and encouraging staff and students to do, is to grow all around cause you’re going to produce the best kind of employee.
What have you learned from Shawn? What ways of his have you adopted that you try to use with your students?
Being approachable. No question is stupid, they are equals, there’s no better than or there’s no pedestal - it’s all about working as a team and each part of that team is just as important. I think his genuineness, his personality, he was very approachable, very kind - you could tell that he cared about his 50 plus employees equally. He made sure each person felt special, supported and needed so I try to carry that as well.
What do you enjoy most about being a faculty research mentor?
Just how inspiring and encouraging the students are to keep me on my feet and continuously learning, and the drive that they have and the passion that they have. It keeps it alive for me.
What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since working with the students?
One of the most important lessons for me was allowing myself to delegate and to let go and trusting that these students are talented and that they will ask questions if they’re unsure about something. The lesson has been really to let go and accept the help and encourage the help.
What advice do you have for current UROP students?
To see others as just human beings to get and to get what they want out of the experience and to not be intimidated. I know that’s easier said than done but what I think they’ll find is that the more you get out of your comfort level and ask that question that you think is stupid, you’ll find more and more that other people had the same question but you had the courage to ask it. And it’s only going to stunt you if you don’t ask those questions. You know we all have to start somewhere and you know researchers are very passionate about the work they do so they can talk about it all day long (laughs) so they welcome questions generally. If you don’t find that good fit the first time, don’t give up. You may not have found your niche, you may not have found your mentor - really do what’s best for you, this is your experience and you have to advocate for it, I think that’s how you’re going to get the best experience.