It may be that Hanaa’s Abdelazim’s research thrives on her ability to follow wherever the path leads.

Most recently, that path supports her stroke research. She learned this spring that she is the recipient of the National Institute of Health’s prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award, which is given to promising predoctoral fellows engaged in health-related research.

The first-generation college graduate began her career at the Cairo University School of Medicine in Egypt, where she earned the equivalent of a U.S. medical degree. As a primary care physician in Egypt, she worked in women’s preventive care and in patient education and counseling.

But her firstborn’s health journey sent her in a different direction. 

“After moving to the United States, I put my career as a physician, and my intentions to join a graduate school, on hold to take care of my child, who suffered from major health issues and required undivided attention,” she said.

Her child is healthy and now has siblings, and Abdelazim has redoubled her focus on research. She is pursuing challenging graduate coursework while juggling a full life at home and in the lab of cardiovascular researcher John Chappell, associate professor of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Because of the way one particular experiment was set up, for instance, Abdelazim would have to come to the lab at all hours. Chappell recalled her completing an experiment early in the morning, heading home to get her children off to school, then returning to the lab to finish up.

“Hanaa Abdelazim has an awe-inspiring work ethic and drive. She has been undaunted in single-handedly bringing new experimental models and techniques into my lab and then using those tools to generate exciting and compelling data. She has an incredibly bright future as a scientist and is most deserving of this prestigious fellowship,” Chappell said. 

Chappell supported her application for the research service award, and he and her colleagues celebrated this spring when she was chosen. The award helps promising doctoral candidates develop as scientists and perform dissertation research in a scientific health-related field.

Abdelazim’s award will help further her research into stroke, which affects about 800,000 patients annually and is one of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. 

The vast majority are ischemic strokes, which occur when a blood clot blocks an artery leading to the brain. Abdelazim is researching the effect of blood flow changes in brain microvessels.

“What scientists and physicians discovered, even after removal of the clot itself and regaining the flow into the vessels, is something called no-reflow phenomena. When the vessels are unclogged, they still have issues of the blood flowing back into the vessels,” Abdelazim said. “So even with the traditional ways of treating a stroke by removing the clot, we still have issues with the recovery of the vessels because during the absence of flow, the vessels lose integrity.”

Abdelazim’s goal is to better understand the abrupt changes taking place in the brain’s blood vessels, specifically in pericytes and endothelial cells, two components of the blood-brain barrier. 

“The ultimate goal is to identify molecular and cellular mechanisms that will inspire the design of novel stroke therapies and build upon established ones to improve patient outcomes,” she said. 

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