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New ASU professor eager to share his expertise on cancer research

Assistant Teaching Professor Naseem Akhter to teach biology at ASU at Lake Havasu

ASU Assistant Teaching Professor Naseem Akhter in a white lab coat in a classroom with skeletons and 3D DNA replicas.
August 29, 2023

Editor's note: New Faces on Campus is a new monthly feature by ASU News showcasing faculty members who have been hired in the 2022–23 academic year.

Naseem Akhter believes the collaboration between academia and health can play a significant role in positively impacting society.

He believes this starts with educating college students.

Biology students at ASU at Lake Havasu will now be the beneficiary of Akhter’s knowledge and experience, as he joins the university as an assistant teaching professor.

“I am eager to share my knowledge with students and help explain complex ideas in a way that is easy to understand,” said Akhter, who has previously taught courses in genetics, cell biology, molecular biology and biochemistry at the undergraduate and graduate levels for eight years, and conducted research at the Medical University of South Carolina and Henry Ford Health System.

In addition to his teaching and research, Naseem is actively involved in mentoring undergraduate and graduate students and has served as an advisor for numerous research projects.

The India native has a history of volunteering for several community health initiatives wherever he goes. No doubt Lake Havasu, a tight-knit and collaborative city, will find a place for Akhter’s skills and generosity. He in turn will enjoy Lake Havasu’s plethora of outdoor activities as an avid hiker and bird-watcher.

ASU News caught up with Akhter, who started his new job a few weeks ago.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about your background — where you’re from and how you ended up in academia?

Answer: I was born in Meerut, a small town about 30 miles northeast of Delhi, India. Since childhood I was mesmerized by the natural world; simple at the surface yet enormously complex at the core. I have always had a strong passion for learning and knowledge, which has been a driving force in shaping my academic journey, which was further fueled during my undergraduate years when I pursued a degree in science with botany, zoology and chemistry. During that time, I had the opportunity to explore various subjects and disciplines, and I found myself drawn to life sciences.

As I delved deeper into my studies, I became increasingly captivated by the ability of giving new identity to living organisms through genetic engineering, which led me to pursue a master’s degree in biotechnology to enhance my expertise and broaden my knowledge base. During my master’s studies, I had the privilege of working with an esteemed mentor engaged in a cancer drug discovery project at one of the pharma majors. This experience induced me to work in cancer genomics and I decided to embark on a PhD journey in molecular oncology, driven by my eagerness to address lacunae in breast cancer onset and progression, especially in young females in India, which is at odds with global incidence. The PhD program provided me with invaluable opportunities to conduct in-depth research, collaborate with experts and develop critical analytical skills.

Throughout my doctoral studies, I discovered not only the joy of uncovering new insights but also the fulfillment of mentoring and guiding others in their academic pursuits. This realization sparked my interest in academia as a platform to both advance research and foster the growth of the next generation of scholars.

Q: What is your area of research or academic focus? What are you most excited about regarding your research?

A: I have pursued cancer and neurodegenerative research at my doctoral and postdoctoral training. These two I believe are the most exciting and rapidly advancing areas in the field of biomedical sciences. The study of cancer focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying the development and progression of tumors.

Tremendous progress has been made in identifying key driver mutations, oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes, which has paved the way for targeted therapies and precision medicine. Neurodegenerative research, on the other hand, is dedicated to unraveling the complexities of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington's disease, among others. As our population ages, the prevalence of these devastating diseases is increasing, making it imperative to find effective treatments.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to study this field?

A: I had an opportunity to work closely with surgical oncologists at the All India Institute of Medical Science for the collection of breast cancer clinical specimens. It was perplexing to observe that the majority of diagnoses were made at an advanced stage III or IV, which essentially made the disease highly complex with poor prognosis when compared with early diagnosis. I witnessed numerous cases where cancers detected at an early stage (stage I or II) could have led to a more favorable prognosis, higher chances of successful treatment and disease-free survival. These experiences motivated me to understand the diseases better and contribute to finding potential cures or treatments.

Q: How do you want to see this field advance to the betterment of society?

A: Apart from early detection, diagnosis and effective therapies with improved survival rates, I believe there is a lot of room for raising awareness about cancer prevention, risk factors and lifestyle changes, raising awareness about the impact of lifestyle on brain health, improving supportive care for cancer and neurodegenerative disease patients.

Q: What is something you wish more people realized about your research/ academic focus?

A: Something people should realize about biomedical research is that it is a complex and iterative process involving a series of experiments, data collection, analysis and interpretation. While breakthroughs and discoveries are celebrated, progress in biomedical research often occurs incrementally and may require extensive time and effort. Moreover, correct mentorship in college can trigger interest and enthusiasm for research among budding scientists. During college, students learn about fundamental biomedical concepts, such as cell biology, genetics and molecular biology, which goes a long way to develop a strong foundation in biomedical sciences and foster interest and enthusiasm for research cultivating the next generation of biomedical researchers.

Q: What brought you to ASU, and what do you like about the university?

A: Interdisciplinary collaboration is one of the key factors that greatly attracted me to ASU. The university's emphasis on fostering collaboration across departments and fields provides a dynamic and enriching environment for conducting research. As a researcher, I believe that some of the most groundbreaking discoveries happen at the intersections of different disciplines. ASU's commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration opens up endless possibilities for exploring novel research questions, tackling complex problems and developing innovative solutions.

Moreover, ASU’s diverse student body presents an exciting opportunity for me as an educator. Engaging with students from various backgrounds and cultures enriches the teaching experience and promotes a vibrant learning environment. It enables me to approach education with a broader perspective, tailoring my teaching methods to meet the diverse needs and learning styles of the students. Embracing diversity in the classroom not only enhances the educational experience but also fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of different cultures, perspectives and ideas.

Effective leadership is a crucial aspect that I value in an academic institution, and ASU’s commitment to supporting the professional growth and well-being of its faculty is truly commendable. The university’s leadership invests in resources and programs that enable faculty members to excel in their research and teaching endeavors. Having a supportive leadership team that values and invests in its faculty’s development contributes to a positive work environment and allows me to thrive as an educator and researcher.

Q: What specifically would you like to accomplish while at your college/school/department?

A: I would like to integrate my own research findings and experiences into the classroom to make the subject matter more relevant and engaging for students. This will allow students to see real-world applications of the concepts they are learning and foster a deeper understanding of the research process. I would like to actively pursue biomedical research alongside my teaching responsibilities by securing grants. I would also like to collaborate between different disciplines to gain benefits from a multidisciplinary approach that may lead to innovative solutions and discoveries.

Q: What’s something you do for fun or something only your closest friends know about you?

A: I pursue book binding as a captivating and delightful hobby. The bug bit me in my childhood while I was helping my father with the upkeep and maintenance of my grandfather’s old books and journals. To me, it is a form of self-expression and escape from the demands of everyday life and serves as a sanctuary where I can immerse myself in the craft, finding solace and peace in the rhythmic motions of binding and assembling. In a world where technology dominates, this affords me a return to the tangible and the nostalgic time when books were lovingly handcrafted, embodying the stories and knowledge within their very essence.

Top photo: Naseem Akhter in the biology laboratory at the ASU at Lake Havasu campus. Photo by Brooke Bahde

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