Research In Motion

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  • Published: August 28, 2016
It’s mid-morning, mid-summer, and in the computer lab at the Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU) Research Complex, a member of Qatar Foundation (QF), the machines hum to life. Seated in front of her monitor, Sara Al Mohannadi is focused intently on the tight cluster of lines on the screen in front of her.
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Looking closer at the screen, she points out variations in density along the course of the wavelengths that mark the algorithm she’s been plotting. A recent graduate in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M University at Qatar, a partner university of QF, before entering the workforce, Al Mohannadi wanted to build upon her training and knowledge with an additional course of study.
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It wasn’t until a friend suggested she enroll in the Summer Internship program of HBKU, that she found an outlet for her interest in applying the practical applications of her discipline towards projects with real-world implications. Working with the Computational Science and Engineering Department at Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), a research institute under HBKU, a member of QF, Al Mohannadi and her fellow interns are charting new waters in the inter-disciplinary field of bioinformatics.

“We’re developing a new algorithm to detect DNA copy number variations in a given genome sequence – so we can detect those variants that are linked to diseases such as cancer,” she elaborated. “For example, in the case of a glioma [brain] tumor, we take a tissue sample and plot its DNA copy number variations and study the differences between its variants and those of healthy tissue. We’re using a regression analysis statistical model that’s dependent upon math and programming to predict how the DNA of a cancer cell will behave in the future. The project is really exciting, and we’re achieving new results.”
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The pace of progress
At the core of HBKU’s Summer Internships is the goal of solidifying Qatar’s national research capacity through continued training of its best and brightest minds across the fields of science, computing, and engineering. Participating research institutes under HBKU are Qatar Environment & Energy Research Institute (QEERI), Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI), and QCRI. Through intensive training opportunities and practical laboratory experience, student interns have the chance to work alongside some of the nation’s most esteemed researchers, scientists, and professors, whose mentorship and guidance are invaluable assets.

At QBRI, students took part in research projects that centered on cancer, stem cell research, diabetes, and neurological disorders. “These are all prevalent issues in the region, and being a part of the study towards such impactful causes was a huge motivation for me to apply for this internship,” said participant Wajiha Yousuf, who is currently a student at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, a partner university of QF.

These internships also serve the added purpose of acting as a pool for talent as Qatar works towards the developmental objectives under its National Vision 2030, empowering students to unlock their human potential and become leaders in their chosen fields of study. At QEERI, interns were paired with research advisors who helped tailor individual internship plans based on their areas of interest and research focus.

For Qatar Research Leadership Fellow Nasreeddine El Dehaibi, this meant a unique opportunity to expand her skill set alongside distinguished experts in the field.

“I joined the internship program to grow my skills as a researcher, and have enjoyed working with QEERI’s world-renowned scientists and learning from their expertise,” she stated. Participants at QEERI spent the summer session learning about its work on Qatar’s water security and energy challenges.

A guiding hand
The Summer Internships program also proved as rewarding for the professors and mentors taking part in guiding students, as it did for the participants themselves. Dr Abdelkader Baggag, Senior Scientist, QCRI, was one of student Sara Al Mohannadi’s project advisors. For him, seeing these young interns take full academic ownership of their research assignments and shine within their fields of study was a fulfilling experience.

“Sara showed great enthusiasm about her research project,” he said. “She is finishing a journal paper based on the results of her contributed algorithm and has learned a lot. I believe she will become a good scientist with hard work and continued training.”

Formulated with these goals of leadership and mentorship in mind, the Summer Internships program offers the kind of one-on-one oversight and knowledge-sharing that may not always be readily accessible elsewhere, explained Dr Eman Fituri, QCRI’s Director of Educational Initiatives: “The program provides students the opportunity to work closely with our world-class scientists and software developers. It was designed to support the best computer scientists and engineers of tomorrow.”

For Sara Al Mohannadi, all those long summer hours put in at the HBKU Research Complex’s computer lab are a testament to the academic dedication and self-confidence it takes to persevere. “There’s no better opportunity than the HBKU Summer Internships to get an insight into how the research world works,” she told The Foundation.

“My mentors at QCRI provided me with great ongoing support. Our research will soon be published as an open source, accessible by everyone. It can be used for future research and studies. I believe QF is the best place to help you explore your areas of interest in-depth; they’ve established this program so that people gain applied knowledge. Plus, the HBKU Internship program is really fun; my QCRI team were friendly, helpful, and treated me like a member of their family!”