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Family encouragement leads doctoral student to academic success

Amal Al-Yasiri stands in the portrait hallway of Mizzou Engineering's leading donors.

Amal Al-Yasiri stands in MU Engineering’s portrait hallway among photos of the college’s leading donors. A fellowship she received from the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education allowed her to study at MU under the tutelage of nuclear engineering faculty.

In May 2015, Amal Al-Yasiri earned her doctorate from the University of Missouri in nuclear engineering/medical physics and topped off the accomplishment later the same month by taking first place honors in the targetry/radiotherapy category for a poster on her doctoral research at the 21st International Symposium on Radiopharmaceutical Sciences (ISRS). The double success is especially meaningful given the twists and turns she navigated on her academic journey.

Al-Yasiri grew up the second of seven children in the Al-Ghazaliya neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, She earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Baghdad and was working on her master’s in medical physics at Al-Mustansiriya University and teaching physics at the College of Dentistry at the University of Baghdad in 2003, when the Iraqi war began and “everything changed.”

Proud of her academic success, her father, a builder, urged her to earn her doctorate, advising her to study abroad.

“All my sisters and my brother have bachelor degrees; my parents went to secondary school, and one of my uncles has a master’s degree,” Al-Yasiri said, explaining that she was the first in her family to earn a doctorate.

Her father’s wishes became especially significant when, while working in his office where he bought and sold homes, he was killed for being Shiite by al-Qaida terrorist groups.

In 2008, Al-Yasiri entered a scholarship/fellowship competition sponsored by Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. She applied and was accepted although, she said, things moved slowly, and it took a while to complete the paperwork. “The program chose my major [medical physics] for me based on my application and asked me to find admission [to a suitable university],” Al-Yasiri said.

She applied to several programs and received favorable responses from University College London and the University of Missouri.

“My uncle wanted me to go to London,” Al-Yasiri said. “A friend told me London was nice, but expensive. Others said, ‘Columbia is a small city, but the university is good.’ I asked my professor, ‘Which will be better?’ and he said a degree from America will be better.”

In 2010, when the airport shuttle driver pulled into the Columbia station, Al-Yasiri thought he had made a mistake.

“I asked him, ‘Where is Columbia?’ and he said, ‘This is Columbia,’” Al-Yasiri said. “I thought it was larger than what I could see, but now I like it better because it is small.”

The young woman’s first order of business was to improve her English skills, a requirement she completed in six months. She began her doctoral research through MU’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute, but when her adviser, nuclear engineering Professor Tushar Ghosh, fell ill, an interdisciplinary team of three MU faculty members teamed up to work with Al-Yasiri: Sudarshan Loyalka, a Curators’ Professor in the College of Engineering; Kattesh V. Katti, a Curators’ Professor in radiology and physics and senior research scientist at MU Research Reactor (MURR); and Cathy Cutler, a nuclear research professor in bioengineering who works at MURR.

“As evidenced by her story and success, Amal is very perseverant and driven,” said Cutler. “She has had to overcome many obstacles to obtain her degree and despite it all she is a pleasure to work with and very appreciative.”

Al-Yasiri’s doctoral research focused on imaging and treating prostate cancer through the use of radioactive gold nanoparticles (AuNPs). Her investigations used the minute particles to deliver a radiation dose and an anti-tumor phytochemical to the tumor in both in-vitro tests and then in-vivo studies using mice. Also a concern of the project was the distribution of the particles throughout the body — biodistribution — and retention of the AuNPs in the prostate. Her results showed the former to be minimal and the delivery of the “doped” particles to the prostate to be effective in the reduction and stabilization of tumors, leading to the conclusion that the procedure greatly deserves further evaluation.

“Everything here [at MU] helped me be successful — the faculty and the team that I have worked with. Also, it’s very accessible, and you can do work easily because of the availability of modern techniques in the laboratories at MU, ” Al-Yasiri said of her academic success, singling out Cutler and fellow nuclear engineering doctoral student Nathan White as being especially helpful, but noted that without the help of all of her advisers, she could not have won the ISRS competition or earned her doctorate.

“Al-Yasiri has been lucky to have this highly experienced interdisciplinary team as her PhD advisers,” Katti said. Loyalka’s in an authority in nuclear engineering; Cutler is a well-known radiopharmaceutical scientist; and Katti himself is a globally recognized scientist in green nanotechnology and nanomedicine, with expertise in chemistry.

“The quality of doctoral training is enhanced significantly when students work under such an interdisciplinary team of experts,” Katti added.

Al-Yasiri has not been back to Iraq since she left in 2010, fearing that it could take up to six months to get her visa renewed if she did return. “That’s what happened to some of my friends,” she said. But she has stayed in close touch with her family.

“Every time I faced a problem or I had a new experiment, I asked my family to pray for me to get good results,” she said. “And when I get good news, I tell them. They know everything about me and about my work.”

Al-Yasiri said that her time in Missouri has been nice. In addition to scholarly successes, she taught herself to drive and has made a few trips within the state.

She is working to get permission for an optional practical training (OPT) extension to stay in the country for another year and continue her studies, possibly working in Katti’s lab as a postdoc.

“I am happy that MU gave me and other people like me this opportunity,” she said.