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Fearless Fulbrights: Dr. Noura Bouchikhi

Visiting Algerian Fulbright scholar Dr. Noura Bouchikhi shares her groundbreaking cancer research, alongside her experiences at UMD.

1. For those who may be unfamiliar with you and your work, can you share a little bit about yourself, your research interests at UMD, and the scope of your Fulbright?

I am a Fulbright Visiting Scholar from Algeria, currently working as a senior researcher at the CRAPC scientific research center in Algeria. Throughout my career, I have been involved in various research projects conducted at institutions such as the University of Tlemcen (Algeria), the University of Lille (France), and the Material Institute IS2M (France).

My primary research focus revolves around developing innovative and intelligent materials. Motivated by my research interests and aspirations, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship with the intention of conducting research at UMD. The title of my proposed project is "Synthesis of polymer nanogels using pulsed-electron beam ionizing irradiation for anticancer drug delivery." Our goal is to prepare tiny carriers (nanogels) using a powerful radiation source (pulsed-electron beam) to deliver cancer medicine directly to the tumor, avoiding healthy tissue. By taking advantage of the benefits provided by electron beam technology we can obtain small nanogels without relying on toxic chemicals.

This approach improves the purity and biocompatibility of the final product, helping patients feel better and stick to their treatment. I chose to pursue this project here due to its reputation in this particular field of research, specifically under the guidance of Professor Mohamad Al-Sheikhly and his team. This scholarship presents an exceptional opportunity for me to achieve the objectives of my project and collaborate with leading experts in the field. I am extremely excited about how this project could change cancer treatment by delivering medication directly to tumor cells, potentially saving lives and minimizing side effects

2. What inspired you to start this process of becoming a Fulbright participant? What was your process in approaching the application?

I have always believed that receiving a scholarship is a significant achievement, especially  prestigious opportunities like the Fulbright scholarship. I am grateful for the chance to pursue my goals and enhance both my scientific and social skills. As someone with a strong passion for learning, I applied for the Fulbright scholarship to expand my knowledge and establish collaborations with other scientists. As a polymer scientist, I have previously worked on designing smart materials, specifically focused on  developing smart hydrogels for drug delivery. When I came across the announcement of the Fulbright scholarship on the US embassy website, I saw it as the golden opportunity to explore new technologies and engage with researchers with a strong academic background.

After submitting my project proposal, I received a positive response from Professor Al-Sheikhly, who expressed interest in collaborating on the development of new hydrogels utilizing electron beam irradiation. This exciting development led me to request and subsequently receive a letter of invitation from Professor Al-sheikhly.

I am truly thrilled about the possibilities that lie ahead and eagerly anticipate the chance to contribute to cutting-edge research in the field of polymer science while establishing valuable connections here.

3. In 2022, the university released their new strategic plan, Fearlessly Forward. One of its core tenets is to take on the world's grand challenges. In what ways does your work contribute to supporting the common good?

The battle against cancer is an ongoing endeavor, with researchers tirelessly exploring novel approaches to deliver powerful drugs specifically for tumors, all while minimizing damage to healthy tissues.

Nanogels have emerged as a highly promising solution, potentially revolutionizing cancer therapy. Personally, the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Al-Sheikhly's team on biomaterials aimed at aiding individuals afflicted by this disease has presented me with a significant challenge, fueling my motivation as a scientific researcher in the fight against this devastating condition.

During my fellowship at UMD, I have been fortunate to access a wide array of sophisticated and advanced technologies that have greatly facilitated my research endeavors. These cutting-edge tools have enabled me to handle my research with precision and delve into the intricate aspects of my work.

4. What has been the most surprising thing you've found in your research and scholarship so far?

I was pleasantly surprised by many aspects of my experience as a Fulbright visiting scholar. One of the most remarkable things was the exceptional facilities provided by the host university and the warm and friendly individuals I encountered during my stay in the US.

As an Arab woman, I never felt out of place during my stay in Maryland. Colleagues and university staff welcomed me with open arms, offering support and guidance to help me explore new techniques and expand my knowledge. This experience has been truly amazing, both professionally and personally. Attending workshops and events organized by the Fulbright community further enriched my journey, allowing me to connect with fellow Fulbrighters from all around the world. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised by the country's natural beauty and the incredible cultural diversity it boasts. Overall, my time as a visiting scholar has exceeded my expectations, providing me with invaluable opportunities for growth and learning.

5. How do you plan to carry forward what you learned and the relationships you formed while abroad?

I'm actively collaborating with my host laboratory to finalize our research and publish several groundbreaking papers on novel nano-biomaterials. Six months immersed in their state-of-the-art facilities provided a unique lens through which I re-envisioned possibilities within this field. We're already crafting joint publications and grant proposals to ensure this collaboration continues beyond my return home. I'm eager to share my newly acquired expertise with my students and local collaborators, leading seminars, co-supervising research projects, and fostering a thriving international network in nano-biomaterials.

6. For others that are interested in becoming Fulbright participants, what advice do you have for them?

I would tell them to go ahead and do it. The Fulbright scholarship is a prestigious and life-changing opportunity for students, researchers, and professionals to immerse themselves in a new culture, exchange knowledge, and contribute to a more peaceful world. I offer guidance to individuals seeking to apply for programs in their field and desired host country, helping them find the best fit for their goals and interests. Drawing from my experience, I strongly advise starting the application process early to allow for ample time to collect required documents, crafting compelling essays, and preparing for interviews. In particular, I recommend being authentic and letting your true personality shine through. Showcasing your ability to serve as a cultural ambassador and foster connections between nations are key. 

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Visit our Fulbright Scholars gallery to meet our fearless scholars engaging with the world. For general program information and application guidance, visit our "How to Fulbright at Maryland" section at the bottom of the page. Interested in applying for your own Fulbright, or want to learn more about the program? Email UMD’s Fulbright U.S. Scholars liaison at Scholten@umd.edu. 

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