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Marwan Abdujawad wearing a lab coat.

Marwan Abduljawad in the Biomolecule Bioengineering Nanotechnology Laboratory.

Engineering Student Wins University of Arizona Grad Slam

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Engineering Student Wins University of Arizona Grad Slam

April 28, 2021
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Marwan Abduljawad honors his mother’s battle with cancer in his award-winning presentation about MRI contrast agents.

Marwan Abduljawad, a fourth-year doctoral student in chemical engineering, opened his presentation for the 2021 University of Arizona Grad Slam competition like this:

“Six years ago, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I remember my sister calling me and telling me doctors wanted to perform an MRI so they would know exactly what’s going on inside my mom’s body. That interested me to learn more about MRI.”

Marwan Abduljawad
Marwan Abduljawad

Abduljawad, who is pursuing his PhD in the Biomolecule Bioengineering Nanotechnology Laboratory under Roberto Guzman, took first place at the competition. In Grad Slam, participants compete to show off their science communications skills by giving three-minute presentations about their research, using accessible language aimed at the general public.

In his video, he explains how clinicians inject patients with contrast agents, which make tumors or other areas of interest, such as blood clots, show up brightly in MRI scans. However, gadolinium, one of the most common types of contrast agents, may stay in the body for months or years at a time, and can be especially harmful to patients with kidney failure.

“As a PhD student who is working with metal nanoparticles, I knew I could make a difference I could help my mom and millions of cancer patients worldwide so they can receive better diagnostics,” he said.

Abduljawad used gold nanoparticles to create an efficient, safe contrast agent which discharges from the body quickly. The gold particles are also coated in magnetic nanoparticles, which can guide the contrast agents to the location of the tumor. Then, they are coated in another layer, to which they attach antibodies.

“These antibodies make the contrast agents smart,” he explained. They’ll be able to sense and locate the tumor inside the body. So if we inject these particles through the vein, they’re going to stick strongly to the tumor. And the tumor is going to light up like a Christmas tree.”

His enthusiasm and clear language brought him from the first round of the competition all the way to the finals, beating out 76 other participants for the grand prize of $3,000. He said his mother is his biggest source of encouragement and inspiration.

“Throughout the whole creation of my slides and oral presentation, she was at the forefront of my mind, and I felt encouraged to present this topic with the passion I felt in the lab,” he said. “On April 10, I was proud to win this award and felt my mom would be too. Unfortunately, she succumbed to cancer on April 12, putting an end to her suffering. She will continue to motivate me.”

View all the Grad Slam presentations, including six others by engineering students, here.