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Syrian academic graduates with PhD from Kingston University after fleeing war-torn country

Posted Tuesday 13 February 2024

Syrian academic graduates with PhD from Kingston University after fleeing war-torn country

A female scientist has been awarded a PhD from Kingston University, four years after fleeing her home country due to ongoing armed conflict.

Dr Razan Abbara collected her PhD certificate in the evolution of antibiotic resistance during the University's winter graduation ceremonies, which saw more than 3,000 students celebrate their achievements at the Rose Theatre in the centre of Kingston.

Dr Abbara's academic journey started in Syria, where she completed an undergraduate degree in pharmacy and pharmacology, and a master's degree in immunology and haematology. Following the completion of her studies in 2017, she worked as a lecturer, teaching classes in microbiology, immunology and haematology, but it was becoming increasingly challenging to work in her home country.

"Due to the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011, my master's took longer than usual to complete, taking me about six years to finish it. It was becoming increasingly difficult to be an academic in Syria and advance my career", Dr Abbara explained.

While in Syria, Dr Abbara came across CARA (the Council for At-Risk Academics), which supports academics being forced to flee their home country and works with them to find temporary refuge in universities and research institutions until they can one day return home.

After applying to CARA, she had to find a supervisor working in her desired research area and was introduced to Professor Mark Fielder at Kingston University who helped her secure a fully-funded scholarship to complete her PhD through the University's Gangolli scholarship, which supports first-generation students on MSc courses in the School of Life Sciences, Pharmacy and Chemistry. The scholarship is funded by pharmaceutical expert Julian Gangolli, himself a Kingston graduate in applied chemistry, which he set up in memory of his parents Professor Sharat and Lilian Gangolli. Julian Gangolli was recognised for his outstanding contribution to philanthropy, receiving an honorary doctorate at the University's winter graduation ceremonies.

Dr Abbara explained how she has benefited from the funding. "I was not able to fund myself internationally to do a PhD, and it was not possible to do one in my home country due to the economic conditions, and so without this scholarship, I wouldn't have been able to do any PhD," she said. "The scholarship supported me with my tuition fees and my living expenses. CARA also secured a scholarship for me with International Students House, covering my accommodation fees in central London."

Dr Abbara came to Kingston University in the autumn of 2019 and a few months later, she was confronted by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Professor Mark Fielder, who supervised her research degree, commended Dr Abbara for her achievements during a difficult period. "She weathered the storm, and I could see her growing during that unsettling time," he said. "As soon as she was able to be back in the laboratory again, she absolutely flew. Her PhD is incredibly well deserved and I can only see her going from strength to strength in her future career."

Her PhD thesis examines the genetic mutations that are present in different bacterial species, which makes them resistant to antibiotics. "I found that each microbe behaves differently to stress from each other. In the same way that one individual person may behave differently in response to stress to another, microbes each have their own response," Dr Abbara explained. "This highlights more work needs to be done to find new antibiotics or new ways to reverse antimicrobial resistance."

In the future, Dr Abbara would like to further her research in antimicrobial resistance or find a job in industry working in microbial engineering.

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