Degree: B.S. Cellular and Molecular Biology
Current Location: San Diego
Year Graduated: 2008
Jobs or Graduate Programs Attended Since Graduation: M.S. Molecular/Cellular Biology from Eastern Michigan University
Kamal Abuarquob moved to Michigan in 2004 and eventually made his way to U-M. After moving to San Diego to be near the ocean, he has written a fiction novel, and found meaningful work as an Associate Scientist at Navigate BioPharma, a Novartis Company.
Selena Joarder: What is your current role?
Kamal Abuarquob: I support clinical trials for candidate oncology drugs and therapies. My role starts with designing and validating protocols in a highly-regulated lab. We then use these protocols to test and report the results of samples from patients enrolled in clinical trials. My company has advanced, diverse technologies, which support a variety of internal and external projects. Some of the clinical trials my company has supported have led to FDA approvals. It took me six years of work experience to get to this company. I’ll celebrate my two-year anniversary at the end of the month.
SJ: Have you always wanted to work in this field?
KA: My family wanted me to be a medical doctor . . . but I didn’t want to. When I graduated in 2008, I said to myself: let’s assume I have enough money and I’m smart enough to get into med school. Acting as if that was a given, I wanted to find out if I did really want to be a doctor. So I volunteered at the U-M cancer center, simply guiding patients to their appointments. The geneticist in me always called out, though. It was a conflict in me—my family wanted me to be a doctor, I wanted to be a geneticist. While I always thought I wanted to help cancer patients, I knew it wouldn’t be through medicine. So many companies out there are trying to find a cure for cancer through genetic research, and I am fascinated by it. I’m now in the field I feel most passionate about and that makes me love coming to work everyday.
SJ: How did you develop such a specific interest?
KA: Genetics and cancer research have been passions of mine since childhood. I find the mystery so exciting. When I was a child, I was maybe a bit strange, as I’d go to pick up the newspaper and skip all of the sections except the last. It usually had short pieces about genetic research and its potential to explore cure for diseases such as cancer. I found these pieces so interesting.
Another time I can remember showing an interest was when I borrowed an encyclopedia from my middle school library, and read a lot about genetics and medicine. I realized that while traditional medicine is important, what we really need to do is go after the disease genetically.
SJ: You do this amazing research . . . and you’ve also written a book?
KA: Writing is a strong passion of mine, too. It’s more like a getaway or a break for me. When I think of a story or a fictional scene, it sort of rings in my mind. I can’t get rid of it. It’s like someone tells me about it, and I need to start writing immediately. With this book, Rhythms: A Thriller of Love and Freedom, I didn’t know how it would start or end. It began as a personal goal, and now that it is public and being read by other people, I love hearing their feedback. My readers think it’s telling my story, but that’s only partially true. Many aspects of my life has influenced the novel’s plot, as there is a visible presence of love, politics, science, and music, all of which are elements I have some sort of history with.
SJ: How do balance your time with such different interests? Do you work to incorporate aspects of each (writing and research) into your everyday life?
KA: The balance of time is a challenge. I moved to San Diego in 2014, and for the first six months I took a break from science, and went to a coffee shop by the ocean to write everyday. I already have two more novels in my mind that I hope to write one day. At work, I’m . . . how do you say? Overly social. There is something called the Culture Council, which runs the social events in the company. I’m an active member at the council. I also eat outside everyday and have interactions with people all the time. I’m a social butterfly.
When I’m on the job, it’s a job. I have managed to separate it from my time writing. However, there are always interesting things that will contribute to your writing endeavors. In every interaction you have, there is something to learn or get inspired from. Some of the happiest people are not necessarily the least busy. I simply take the one hour break to sit outside and eat, which clears my mind.
SJ: What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of your job?
KA: My most favorite aspect is the amazing work we do. This work does make a huge impact on patients in the short and long term. I don’t really have a least favorite aspect. However, I always look forward to new possible research that we’re probably not able to do yet. It’s hard to think about how much more we, and others, could be doing to further advance oncology research and drug discovery in the future.
If you or anybody out there thinks that they should do the job for money, it's a flag. Work should feel like home. When you start off working as a new graduate, you may not have a lot of choices, but as you go through life, finding a job that you’re happy about is so important. It should drive your happiness and peace of mind.
SJ: That’s common advice, and I think it’s really great. It can become tricky to find these jobs right out of school though, so what is your advice to finding a job that makes you happy?
KA: Have some real passion. If you are not sure yet, have at least a compass to point you towards what you’re most interested in. I encourage young people to be cautious about settling down too much. Don’t close your mind entirely about what you want to do. Sometimes, even, other people discover important things about you that you don’t even recognize. These things can be important to listen to, as you may learn things about yourself that highlight strengths you didn’t know you had.
I also like to remind people that passion is not going to come in a day. It may take time to discover, and you must still work toward practical goals. If money is a concern and you realize that somebody isn’t going to pay the bills for you, you must work to support yourself. Sometimes you can’t let your dreams dominate in the beginning, as you must take care of your basic needs. I mean, if you want to write a novel, it would be a distraction if your landlord keeps knocking on your door asking for rent money.
SJ: What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing a similar career path?
KA: I transferred from Henry Ford Community College into cellular and molecular biology at U-M. It was such a comprehensive curriculum that helped me decide if it was the right fit for me. So, see if you’re passionate about the science and the career through the curriculum.
Internships are also important! I was a UROP student in a lab, and when I was given the opportunity to have my work count as credit toward my degree, it was the perfect fit. Internships give you a good preview of what you want to do. They give you confidence in your decision, or deter you, suggesting that it might not be the right fit.
SJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
KA: One of my main goals is moving upward in the company I’m at. I enjoy the work at my company and I strongly believe in its mission. It’s a growing company, so the door is open for new opportunities all the time. I would also, ultimately, like to work at mixing science and business. There are a lot of people who could have financial opportunities in cancer research and drug discovery, but they don’t know what scientists can do to generate great science and help patients. Often, too, scientists are not the best communicators of what they can do. But I’m not one of those scientists, for I do have the skill of clear communication. Maybe one day I can use it to communicate the importance of science to the business world.
Also in five years, I really want to travel more. Over the past two years, I have gone into three nine-day road trips. I want to do more of these in the future.
SJ: Any more advice that you’d like to share?
KA: You will encounter challenges, and sometimes you won’t be in a perfect situation. Just work to leave an impact and work to empower yourself to find what you want to do. Keep your eyes open. Don’t look at anything from a closed-minded view.