Ayesha Shajahan-Haq, Ph.D.: Research. Teaching. Service to Others.

Assistant Professor, Department of Tumor Biology
Director, Masters Program in Tumor Biology

“It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know someone who has been affected by or succumbed to cancer.”

At Georgetown University since 2004


I try to understand how cancer cells, specifically breast cancer cells, respond to drugs. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know someone who has been affected by or succumbed to cancer. You may hear that the cancer was relatively early-stage, mid-stage, or late-stage, but whatever the situation, you’ll often hear that the treatment/surgery was initially successful, but then within six months, a year, two years or more, that the cancer came back. One of the underlying reasons for this common series of events is that the drugs that were used to treat the cancer worked in the beginning, worked midway, but then something happened. We know this happens, but we still don’t know how, when, or why. This is what I study: why do cancers first respond to treatment, and then what qualities do they assume that gives them the adaptation and the resistance to keep growing? So, resistance, in my lab, is a big word.

“Teach me.”

To be in research, as a student, you want to be hungry for knowledge, you want to work hard, and you want to accept the fact that you don’t know enough. There is always room for you to keep that mind open and absorb new information. It is crucial for anybody wanting to be in research to not assume and think, “Oh, I think I’m done.” Whether a student in my lab is exploring their options to be a doctor or a scientist, they are given the chance to experience research first-hand. For the future scientist, a cancer research experience gives them a glimpse into the multi-faceted world of research – from budget planning to research publication. For the future medical student, this research experience gives them an idea of how cancer research can be translated into clinical practice. The common theme among students who want to be scientists or physicians would be a willingness to learn. Students who come in saying, “Ok, teach me,” that’s my ideal student.

“To be in research, you want to be hungry for knowledge, you want to work hard, and you want to accept the fact that you don’t know enough.”

Research. Teaching. Service.

Georgetown was my first real job. I love the environment and the proficiency of this community. Among faculty, we have a motto: “Research, Teaching, Service.” The opportunity to discover the unknown and impart that knowledge to the future generations is a privilege. Also, the principle of approaching life in a very selfless way has always been really appealing to me.

A memorable moment of my professional life was the very moment that I was given the key to my lab. I recognized all of my sacrifices and where I could have been if I’d given up. But I didn’t give up, and that day, that key, that piece of metal – that was my accomplishment.

I’ve learned to look at the bigger picture when faced with choices. For example, when the opportunity to teach came, I took it, and I am now the co-director of the [Tumor Biology] Master’s Program here. I have expanded the program with a new track, added a new course, and helped to educate students on current issues in oncology.

Most of our MS students take a nine-month curriculum. Students pick our program to learn about cancer biology from world renowned scientists. Some students will use this degree to strengthen their application for medical school while others will use it for exploring a career in research. Either way, we offer a platform to fulfill their dream of becoming a physician, a scientist or both. I love that our MS degree gives them a chance and to make that process less stressful and more enjoyable – I was able to be part of that and I think that’s a success.

I take service seriously because I gain so much satisfaction from it. You tend to doubt yourself less when you can see your work benefiting someone. I have a collaboration with cancer patients, and we work with them to understand how we as researchers can include patient perspective in research goals and tailor research more to the needs of patients. I’ve been able to do that now for seven years and it is something I am very proud of.