What They Learned: Hassan Ahamed ’19

In his thesis, the chemistry major explores potential cures for pancreatic cancer.

The senior thesis project exposed Hassan Ahamed ’19 to the real-world applications of chemistry as he engaged in a process of drug-discovery for one of the most deadly forms of cancer. Ahamed’s thesis, “Development of an In vitro Assay to Evaluate Small Molecule Inhibitors of the Lin28:pre-Let-7 Interaction in Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma,” taught the graduate just as many valuable lessons about the process of research as it did about its deadly subject-matter.

Ahamed’s research contributes to the search for a pancreatic cancer cure. The recent graduate was motivated to investigate medicinal chemistry for his thesis following his junior-year experience in “SuperLab,” taught by Robert Broadup. The course exposed him to practically applied chemistry, as the class attempted to synthesize chemicals to produce drugs that might treat the disease known as leishmaniasis.

“Although the syntheses were not easy, and often failed, I enjoyed the experience of conducting impactful scientific work that was unprecedented and not pre-engineered to be successful,” Ahamed said. “In some way, the failed reactions made me appreciate the science even more and increased my persistence to find the best synthetic route.”

From there, the transition from “SuperLab” to thesis research was relatively straightforward. Interested by what he saw in Broadup’s course, Ahamed asked the visiting assistant professor to be his advisor. He began work in Broadup’s pancreatic cancer early drug discovery lab the summer prior to his senior year. Since Ahamed’s research dealt with complex and still largely unsolved issues, there were naturally roadblocks along the way.

“Instead of lingering over minor setbacks, I used them to propel my search for alternative solutions,” Ahamed said. “My advisor’s constant ambitious and positive attitude nurtured an intense yet constructive and upbeat research environment.”

The relationship that developed between Ahamed and Broadup allowed for an atmosphere that both proactively guided the student while also offering him the freedom to confront and learn from the problems brought up by his investigation.

“Rob was always there to support, advise, and mentor me throughout my thesis research,” Ahamed reflected. “Most importantly however, he encouraged and valued my ideas and independent thinking to drive the work forward.”

What did you learn from working on your thesis?

Unquestionably, one of the greatest skills I have learnt from working on my thesis is how to “troubleshoot” instead of despairing over unexpected or undesirable results. In the real world, experiments are often unsuccessful the first time they are carried out, and as scientists and researchers, it is important to use failure to our advantage, to grow from it and see it as a powerful source of new ideas. This tool is crucial for thriving in the field of scientific research and I have had the opportunity to develop it at Haverford not only through my thesis work, but also from the chemistry and biochemistry “SuperLab” courses that I took during my junior year.

What are the implications for your thesis research?

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal cancers out there, and there has not been enough progress towards finding a cure in the past several decades. Despite the small scale and limited resources that we have to pursue this project, I feel privileged to be able to contribute to the field through the advancement of the drug discovery process. Hopefully, this work will, in some way, inform the development of specific drugs for the targeted treatment of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma patients.

What are your plans for the future?

I enjoyed working on this project very much as it addressed my joint passions for research and medicine. As I take on a research associate position at the New York University Langone Neuroscience Institute for the next two years, I feel confident that my experience at Haverford has well equipped me to conduct rigorous and ethical scientific research with resilience and virtue. My hope is to eventually pursue a career in medicine.


“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.