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»My research only makes sense if in the future there are patients who get a better prognosis«

30-year-old Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi is already a well-known name in the research world for her work on detecting very early signs of disease in humans. Her research has now led her to RUC, where she looks forward to working with researchers outside her own field of expertise.
Fatima AlZahra'a Alatraktchi

Even though Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi is only 30 years old, she is already an experienced scientist and a bit of a star in the research world. In the course of her short career, she has already received numerous awards and honours in the field of nanotechnology and molecular biology, including PhD of the year at DTU, where she was educated. So she is more than ready for an appointment at a technical university with a long tradition of work in the areas in which Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi works. Nevertheless, it is at Roskilde University that she is now in the process of setting up her office on the first floor of building 28C, and there is a pretty good explanation for that.

There are still not many books on the shelves and absolutely no pictures on the walls. Overall, the office does not look as if it is here that Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi will be spending most of her time. That will be in the laboratory, amongst university colleagues. She looks forward to drawing on skills outside her own field, from colleagues working on highly diverse things. It is this opportunity she says is the main reason for choosing RUC as her employer:

“There is a huge amount of inspiration to be gleaned from talking to people who are doing something completely different from yourself, and that is a very unique tradition here at RUC,” explains Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi.

Various disciplines

Her research is about finding very early indications that an illness is developing in a person. When a disease is at a very early stage, where it is usually not yet possible to see that it is developing, things happen in the body at a molecular level that reveal the disease. The trick is to make sensors that can measure these tiny changes, and that is where Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi is a leader in her field. Today, it can take a long time to get a correct diagnosis. In the best-case scenario, an earlier diagnosis with the right treatment can save lives.  But in order to achieve new results, Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi has to ally herself with researchers with completely different competencies, such as chemists, with which she is surrounded at RUC:

“Right now, I’m sitting down and working with a lot of chemists, and I get a lot out of it. I’m developing sensors, and here is someone who knows a lot about the chemicals I use for developing the sensors. So they see things completely differently from the way I see things, even though we are looking at the same chemical - because we have different academic viewpoints,” she explains

“When you sit down with the same kind of people, you often optimise something that is not necessarily needed. And that’s a waste of both research funding and energy. That’s why this place is so amazing,” says Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi. 

When no one benefits from something I’ve done, I don’t really feel I’ve accomplished anything

Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi got to know RUC from the inside in the context of a collaborative project between the university and her company, PreDiagnose, which originated from her research into early disease diagnosis. It soon became clear to her that the university had something special to offer, and that attracted her: not only because of the interdisciplinary approach to work, but also because very high-quality research is being conducted. That high level of research is essential for Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi, who makes no attempt to conceal that she is driven by a clear ambition to make a difference in the world and create clear results:

“When no one benefits from something I’ve done, I don’t really feel I’ve accomplished anything. My research only makes sense if in the future there are patients who get a better prognosis«, she says. Right now, Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi’s research is moving in several directions. But what all the projects have in common is the fact that they are becoming interdisciplinary and close collaborations across Roskilde University and external partners, and she will keep a close eye on all the nooks and crannies of the university in her quest for collaboration opportunities:

“My dream here at RUC is to build a team with many different skills, who work together and complement each other’s knowledge. I also want to teach students about what I do, so we can create results together.”

Published in Rubrik #16, 2019

TEDx Talk with 1.4 million views

Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi, Assistant Professor in the Department of Science and Environment. Born in 1989 in Kuwait of Iraqi and Lebanese parents. An Engineering graduate and PhD from DTU, she has received a number of awards and honours for her work, including ‘Thesis of the Year’ at DTU and the Lundbeck Foundation’s research talent award. Her TEDx Talk, which is about using the communication of bacteria to predict disease-causing activity, has been viewed more than 14 million times, and the text has been translated into 19 different languages. In February 2019, she featured in the Forbes’ list, ‘30 under 30 - Europe’ which honours the currently most influential people under the age of 30 in their field. Alongside her scientific work, Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi writes fiction. Since 2008, she has published three books.