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In Norway, Fulbright scholar Pahul Hanjra is furthering our understanding of the ties between obesity and cancer

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Fulbright scholar Pahul Hanjra is researching the links between obesity and cancer as part of the Cellular Networks Group in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Bergen in Norway. (Courtesy photo)

At a lab in Norway, recent Virginia Commonwealth University alumna Pahul Hanjra is working as part of a team seeking to understand the links between obesity and cancer on a molecular level.

“My project goal is to begin answering the question: Are there differences between an obese and healthy-weight environment that cause selective pressures on tumors for more aggressive tumors to evolve in obese environments?” Hanjra said. “To this end, I have been working with breast cancer cell lines and mice experiments.”

Hanjra is one of seven VCU grads studying abroad as part of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. The program, part of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, provides research, study and teaching opportunities in more than 140 countries to recent graduates and graduate students.

For her Fulbright, Hanjra has been working since August in the Cellular Networks Group in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Bergen, specifically in the lab of researcher Nils Halberg, Ph.D.

“There have been numerous epidemiological studies that indicate there is an association between being severely overweight and a person's risk for developing cancer; additionally, people who are severely overweight that develop cancer are far more likely to suffer from worse outcomes as a result of their disease,” Hanjra said. “In spite of this large body of evidence, there is little information to explain this on a mechanistic level, and the Halberg lab is focusing on trying to fill in those gaps.”

Hanjra graduated from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2016 with a degree in chemistry with a biochemistry concentration and a biology minor, as well as a degree in philosophy.

After VCU, Hanjra had some time for introspection while looking for job opportunities. She decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship and received support from VCU’s National Scholarship Office.

“I am very fortunate to have a great personal support system to encourage me to apply, but I also have to express my gratitude and kudos to Dr. Jeff Wing, Dr. Meredith Sisson, and the VCU National Scholarship Office as a whole, for their encouragement and tremendous support through the entire process,” she said.

Hanjra has loved her time in Bergen, trying new foods (brunost — a Norwegian cheese — is great, she said), hiking through the mountains that surround the city, and making friends with the Norwegian people.

“I can safely say that I will leave a little piece of my heart in Norway even after I go back home,” she said.

The only slight downside has been the unpredictable weather, she said, but she has been trying to embrace it as the Norwegians do.

Hanjra, who has been in Norway since August, has enjoyed trying Norwegian food, making friends with the Norwegian people and hiking in the mountains surrounding Bergen. (Courtesy photo)
Hanjra, who has been in Norway since August, has enjoyed trying Norwegian food, making friends with the Norwegian people and hiking in the mountains surrounding Bergen. (Courtesy photo)

“As they say, ‘There is no bad weather, only bad clothing,’” Hanjra said. “This kind of attitude has been infectious for me in completing my project as well, and has helped me approach the obstacles and troubleshooting that come regularly with scientific research with a similar optimism and adaptable mindset.”

Hanjra’s Fulbright scholarship will wrap up in June. In the fall, she will enter an M.D./Ph.D. dual degree program with the goal of becoming a physician-scientist.

“Although I am certain these goals will evolve and mature as I progress on this path, ultimately, I want to be conducting patient-centered research as a scientist, and have the training to care for and treat patients,” she said.

Sarah Golding, Ph.D., instructor and director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology, said Hanjra arrived at VCU eager to engage in research.

“She joined my Molecular Biology Lab Skills boot camp in the spring of her freshman year and never looked back,” Golding said. “She took advantage of every opportunity VCU offered. She left VCU with her name on two scientific publications and headed to the NIH for a post-baccalaureate experience. Studying abroad was always a goal of Pahul's so the Fulbright scholarship was the perfect opportunity for her to experience another culture while continuing to hone her research skills.”

John M. Aughenbaugh, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, said Hanjra is “one the most impressive students, whether undergraduate or graduate, with which I have had the opportunity to work.”

“Pahul has the potential to make a difference as both a bench scientist and as a doctor working with patients,” he said. “Not many can do both, but I truly believe she can.”

Hanjra worked with VCU’s National Scholarship Office to apply for the Fulbright scholarship. The office provides support for VCU alumni, graduate students and undergraduates who wish to compete for prestigious national and international scholarships. Interested students and alumni can contact the office at natlscholar@vcu.edu or (804) 828-6868.