When Dr. Jannatul Ferdoush’s grandmother developed stomach cancer and died from it in Bangladesh, Ferdoush set her sights on unlocking the genetic mysteries of cancer.
Ferdoush, who earned her doctorate degree from Southern Illinois University, is now a new tenure-track faculty member teaching genetics courses at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The molecular biologist teaches classes in genetics, genetics lab, molecular genetics and virology, but also runs two laboratories that focus on understanding such research as the regulation of eukaryotic gene expression and transcription-coupled ubiquitination. In layman’s terms, she’s studying the mechanisms that trigger too much protein in the body. The “overexpression” of proteins causes some cancers.
By learning what triggers excessive proteins, Ferdoush and other researchers hope to gain traction to better treating or preventing cancer.
“My grandmother died of stomach cancer and that incident affected and touched me emotionally,” Ferdoush said. “Therefore I have always wanted to do something to help cancer patients. When I got a chance to choose my area of research, I quickly chose the one where I can contribute to cancer research. Hopefully, my research will help the progress in this field.”
Ferdoush grew up in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and earned a bachelor’s degree in genetic engineering and biotechnology from University of Chittagong in 2011. Two years later, she had a master’s degree in the same subjects in her hometown and then moved to the United States in 2014.
She and her husband, UTC economics professor Rafayet Alam, attended graduate school together at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale. Because Ferdoush’s field has a steep learning curve, it was a five-year doctorate program sandwiched around raising a now-6-year-old daughter.
Ferdoush followed her husband to UTC and began working as an adjunct professor in 2020 and last fall joined the permanent faculty as a tenure-track assistant professor of genetics.
If you talk to Ferdoush, you’d better carry a medical dictionary to keep up when she explains her research.
“My research is focused on understanding the regulation of eukaryotic gene expression and transcription-coupled ubiquitination. Many transcription factors are found to be upregulated in many cancer cells and such upregulation is involved in cellular transformation or oncogenesis. As the basis for upregulation of these transcription factors remains largely unknown, I investigate how the ubiquitin-proteasome system regulates the cellular abundance of such transcription factors. The knowledge from these studies would provide new avenues for disease detection and treatment strategies,” Ferdoush said.
Human trials are years off, she said, so for now she uses yeast, which shares enough genome mechanisms with humans and allows her and her student researchers to measure excessive protein levels and how to reduce them to normal levels. Ultimately, she plans to craft a peer-reviewed research paper before further, nitty-gritty testing.
“One protein that is overexpressed is called PAF1 [Polymerase Associated Favor]. That’s a protein that’s found to cause cancer. If you know these things, the mechanisms, then we can probably find some drugs to reduce those proteins, but we must be patient,” Ferdoush said.
“Too much protein is not good,” she said. “Too low protein is not good. You cannot work on humans because there are ethical concerns, very complicated things; but the same mechanisms can be found in yeast. If you find that, then probably in the future our plan is to work on humans.”
Ferdoush absorbed most of the culture shock in leaving Bangladesh for America by first moving to Carbondale, Illinois. Moving to Chattanooga was a smooth topographical transition, she said.
“Chittagong is full of hills, forests and natural beauty,” said Ferdoush, the daughter of a chemist and homemaker. “Therefore when I first visited Chattanooga, it looked like Chittagong in many aspects, and indeed it is. Weatherwise also Chattanooga is similar to Chittagong, not so hot and not so cold. Therefore it feels like I have found the same city I left many years ago and thousands of miles away.”
As an assistant professor of genetics in UTC’s Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science, Ferdoush said she relies on three undergraduates (two of whom are Honors College students).
“I try to involve as many students as possible in my research,” she said.
On ratemyprofessors.com, one of her students wrote: “Dr. Ferdoush is the best biology professor I’ve ever had! She gave amazing lectures, was always accessible outside of class, and she gave lots of extra credit. She is very caring and willing to work with her students and really wants you to do well in her class.”
Dr. Ethan Carver, associate dean of the UTC Graduate School and a professor of biology at UTC since 2005, said landing Ferdoush was an academic coup.
“Having a professor in genetics is a great opportunity for students to see some of the newest and most interesting technology and knowledge going on in the field,” he said.