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Mahvash Tavassoli

Mahvash Tavassoli

I came to England in 1978 from Iran with the aim of continuing my studies in Biochemistry. A few months after my arrival in the UK the Iranian revolution happened, my grant was stopped and my family were not permitted to send money to support me and therefore my academic career was brought to a sudden but most definite halt.

 
I had to find a way to fund my education and took unpaid and part time jobs in various laboratories in the school of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex.
 
Thankfully by 1983, I had enough savings to register as a PhD student in Professor Sydney Shall’s laboratory to study the role of c-myc oncogene in cellular senescence and differentiation. The atmosphere in the laboratory was very stimulating and exciting at that time because a number of the people working there were to become some of the greatest scientists in their field. These included such notables as noble laureate Professor Sir Paul Nurse, Professors David Beach and Farzin Farzaneh. I felt extremely privileged to be studying and training with such great scientists. However, very soon I realised that the tuition fees and living expenses were far in excess of my meagre means. I was very close to losing my PhD place when Sydney encouraged me to apply for a grant that had just been created by the Biochemical Society to commemorate the contributions of Sir Hans Krebs’s to Biochemistry.
 
On the 14th December 1984, a date fixed in my memory, I received a handwritten letter from the Chairman of the committee Sir Hans Kornberg (who had himself studied with Sir Hans Krebs), informing me of the award of the 1st Krebs’ Memorial Scholarship to me. I was thrilled. I remember the letter word for word and the profound impact it had on me. Sir Hans’ letter closed with the words “the award to you is therefore not only recognition of your talent and potential but is wholly in accord with Sir Hans Kerbs’ principals”. These were extremely encouraging words that would have moved anyone, but they also brought huge sense of responsibility. Do I deserve this? Am I worthy of such a terrific award? Questions that still ring out every time I submit a grant application for the funding of my work. 
 
Sir Hans’ letter brought the best news I had ever had - a turning point in my career and life as a whole.
 
I completed my DPhil in Biochemistry in 1987 and the findings of my project resulted in an important paper published in the journal Oncogene. Shortly after the completion of my PhD I obtained a fellowship from the International Union Against Cancer (UICC) to spend a short postdoctoral training fellowship in the laboratory of Prof Robert Eisenman at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, USA. Robert has been the guru of myc oncoprotein studies and working in his lab was an extremely valuable and unforgettable experience. It was a real privilege to gain access to state of the art molecular biology at an early stage in my career. When I returned to UK, I was offered the Charles Hunnisett postdoctoral Fellowship to work in the Medical Research Centre at the University of Sussex to study the role of EGFR receptor family tyrosine kinases in breast and ovarian cancer. In 1990 I was awarded a Research Fellowship by Cancer Research Campaign (now CRUK) to set up my own group to continue to study the mechanism of c-erbB2 signalling. In 1993 I was awarded an EMBO fellowship to work in the laboratory of Professor Axel Ullrich at the Max Planck institute in Munich. To be trained with such an internationally leading group in the field of receptor tyrosine kinases, made me once again very aware of the prestigious opportunity I had been given.
 
In April 1995 I was appointed as a lecturer in the Department of Oral Medicine and Pathology at King’s College London where I have been working since. In Sept 2000 I was promoted to senior lecturer and in 2006 to Reader in Molecular Pathology. In September 2006 I was appointed Professor of Molecular Oncology, at King’s College London where I lead a research team into the molecular pathogenesis of head and neck cancers with specific focus on the understanding of the defects in the apoptosis machinery and the targeting of these mechanisms for the development of novel cancer therapeutics.
 
I will be forever grateful to the Biochemical Society and to the Trustees of the Krebs’ Memorial Scholarship, because without their support I simply would not have been able to continue my studies and to experience the terrific satisfaction of a scientific career. In addition, I have been very lucky to work with many great scientists whose support and generosity I remain indebted to; in particular my mentor and very good friend Sydney Shall who always believed in me and has helped me in countless ways.
 
Recently I have been honoured to be part of the committee for the selection of students for the Krebs’ Memorial Scholarship. As I read the applications I am flooded with my own memories, and deeply appreciate the importance of this Scholarship and the real difference this program can make to the life of able students from many parts of the world, which are unable to achieve their dream due to special circumstances which is out or their control.