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Alumni Profile

Cooking Up
Groundbreaking Science

Over dinner, MainGate coeditor Lynn Mahoney discovers that award-winning biotechnology scientist Rima Kaddurah-Daouk’s recipe for success is persistence and determination.

All clichés about scientists disappear as soon as Rima Kaddurah-Daouk (BS ’78, MS ’80, PhD ’83) opens the door of her home in peaceful Belmont, Massachusetts. I am greeted by a woman who seems equally comfortable delivering a presentation on her innovative research in the new field of metabolomics at an international conference as she does in the kitchen whipping up a delicious home-style Lebanese-Jordanian dinner—which she did for me and MainGate coeditor Ibrahim Khoury one crisp March evening.
Warm and vivacious, Kuddurah-Daouk seems to make pioneering research effortless. The accolades have been many for this extraordinary though modest and down-to-earth woman, who was honored at the annual meeting of the Arab Thought Foundation at UNESCO Palace in Beirut last December for her impressive contributions to science in the field of “Creativity” (Mubdei'in). The award is highly prestigious, and she is one of the few women to be so honored.
Kaddurah-Daouk’s achievements in biotechnology and medical research are remarkable, especially in the field of building a new and powerful technology platform that complements the genomic and proteomic platforms, as well as in the groundbreaking work being done in investigating central nervous system diseases and cancer disorders. She is the co-founder of more than one biotechnology company, and retains affiliation with the Harvard Medical School.
A native of Jordan, Rima received her BS and MS degrees in chemistry and a PhD in biochemistry from AUB’s Faculty of Medicine, where her love for scientific medical research was nourished. Remembering her student days, she recalls many happy Friday evenings at Uncle Sam’s with her fellow researchers and their wistful discussions on moving to the United States to “make it” in the hard sciences. “We dreamed how we could join the major research labs and be part of the burgeoning scientific research community,” she says, smiling. “We were three couples who all ended up in the United States and followed our dream.” Indeed, one of the young men became her husband, Dr. Ghaleb Daouk (MD ’84), a pediatric kidney specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and faculty member of the Harvard School of Medicine.
She credits AUB with giving her the gumption to chase her dream. “As students, we were taught to think in an open way. If we ever came across conflict, we attacked it in a liberal way.”
Her biomedical research training at AUB began during the Lebanese civil war. “The days of war made it difficult to finish experiments and get around campus. Electricity was always going on and off. But those hardships made me all the more determined to achieve my professional goals.”
Soon after graduation, Kaddurah-Daouk returned to Jordan to visit her family and talked with her father about going to the United States to continue her scientific research. At that time in Jordan, she recalls, it was very unusual for a young woman to pursue such a fully demanding career as science; most simply got married. Her father’s support, however, was a huge inspiration. “He was also a scientist,” she says. “At eight years old, I started my scientific experiments, which he supervised. I learned physics as a child, as we walked along the Corniche together discussing the secrets of the universe. My father would have discussions with me about Newton’s work over tea at some of the cafés by the sea. By the time I was ten, I knew I would also be a scientist.”
With her father’s blessings, Kaddurah-Daouk purchased a ticket to the United States, packed her bags, and was on her way. Constantly echoing in her thoughts were her father’s farewell words: “If you want it, go and get it.”
She had no appointments set up in the United States, as the war had made communications between countries close to impossible. So she just went from lab to lab, knocking on doors and seeking interviews. “It seemed like a miracle when I was invited to join the labs at CalTech Berkeley,” she remembers.
Circumstance, however, would take Kaddurah on a different path. The turning point in her life came when an old friend she was visiting at Johns Hopkins University encouraged her to look into one of the leading molecular biology labs there. After reviewing the research of the university’s faculty members, she decided to “go for it.” Without an appointment, she walked into the laboratory of a rather tall scientist and announced: “I just graduated from AUB. I have no publications, but I promise we will do great things in science.” In recalling that daring encounter, Kaddurah-Daouk says, “The man smiled, and then two days later telephoned saying there was a position for me at Hopkins. My husband Ghaleb told me afterward that the “smiling gentleman” was, in fact, the father of molecular biology, Nobel Laureate Hamilton Smith!”

After two years at Hopkins and having to maintain a “commuter” marriage, she became involved in biotechnology work as a senior research fellow at Harvard Medical school. She then joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she became a research associate for her husband’s laboratory director, renowned scientist Paul Schimmel, widely regarded as one of the founders of biotechnology in the United States. There, she continued with her research in the molecular biology and biochemistry of cancer. Her work with the Schimmel group helped characterize the creatine kinase brain isoform and led to her discovery of a link between creatine kinase, viral replication, and cellular transformation events.

Under Schimmel’s wing, she learned to be assertive in pursuing goals. “I realized that I could become an entrepreneur,“ she explains. Her team also realized they could start their own venture and had been looking for funding. She says MIT was incredibly supportive. It was then that she established a biotechnology company that would focus on the further development of links between creatine kinase and tumor growth and invasion. With the launching of this enterprise, she became one of the first women at MIT to start a company based on a discovery made at MIT. “It is a tough route in the sciences,” she remarks. “Some women are not venturing out. It can be highly competitive and demanding, but the rewards are plentiful.”
While building her career, Kaddurah-Daouk also became a mother to daughter Hassana, 18, and son Hasan Omar, 15—whom she considers her finest accomplishments. She is a hands-on mom, and her tender love for them is apparent in the soft expression of her eyes when she talks about them.
Kaddurah-Daouk’s success in the scientific domain continued to grow, as she helped initiate clinical trials in over 25 clinical centers based on her discoveries with creatine. The findings that resulted led to the establishment of a second biotechnology company, Avicena Group Inc., which she cofounded with Ghaleb and other professionals at Harvard and MIT.
In the early 2000s, she was among the first scientists in the world to recognize the importance of post-human genome research in
identifying the biochemical lay of the cell. This concept, similar to the human genome, has since been called the human metabolome and its field, metabolomics, is currently among the hottest areas of research in biology. Most recently, she co-founded Metabolon, Inc., a novel biotechnology company situated in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, which has just received multimillion-dollar funding from major US investors.
Since then Kaddurah-Daouk has been involved in a number of ventures and projects in metabolomics in order to follow up on what is referred to as the Human Genome Project, and on the debilitating neurological disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Excitedly she informs us: “Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the US National Institutes of Health, recently announced the NIH Road Map to assess the life sciences, which are expanding at an unprecedented rate. This will greatly boost developments in the field of metabolomics.” Kaddurah-Daouk is at the forefront of the field and has been named president of the Metabolomics Society. When she mentions the possibility of a future project based on mapping genetic pools in the Middle East region, she comments with pleasure that, one day soon, her research may take her back home again.
As the evening comes to a close, Kaddurah-Daouk reflects on her busy and rewarding life. “As scientists, we are blessed to be able to see trends emerging and to be there on the spot early. Opening new avenues of research is fantastic—medical developments are the first to impact human health. It is great to be part of it all.”