Connell lecture series: Dr. Asma Hatoum-Aslan

Written by Shelley He

On May 29th, 2024 we had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Asma Hatoum-Aslan, an associate professor of microbiology and principal investigator at the University of Illinois. The work conducted by Dr. Hatoum-Aslan centers on the issue of infectious diseases, an especially pressing concern in this modern era of antibiotic resistance. To slow the trajectory of antibiotic resistance, the Hatoum-Aslan lab takes inspiration from nature in their study of bacterial phages, otherwise known as “viruses that infect bacteria.” By thoroughly understanding the antimicrobial properties of phages, it may be possible to engineer therapies using phages by thoroughly understanding their antimicrobial properties. The remarkable contribution of Dr. Hatoum-Aslan’s research has been recognized on various occasions including the Burroughs Wellcome PATH Award, a highly competitive prize in the study of pathogenesis. Dr. Hatoum-Aslan’s achievements, paired with her personable character, undeniably yields to curiosity on her outlooks towards a career in science and her words of advice to today’s trainees. In this piece, we share Dr. Hatoum-Aslan’s journey: 

“I’ve had an interest in science starting in high school. I was the type of student who would compete in science fairs. Chemistry was my first love in science, I had a very influential teacher who taught me different ways to view the world, not just chemistry. I also have brothers who excelled in chemistry so I think I definitely knew I would do something science related since then.”

In university, Dr. Hatoum-Aslan pursued chemical engineering as a recommendation from her father but soon felt that the subject was too industrial for her preferences. As the film Jurassic Park was released around the same time, the combination of science fiction and genetic engineering was particularly compelling to Dr. Hatoum-Aslan, which inspired her to seek out opportunities to engage with the subject. This eventually led her into the field of molecular biology. Dr. Hatoum-Aslan remarks: “in your life, there are turning points, and this was one of them.”

Upon graduating university, Dr. Hatoum-Aslan comments, “I was…sort of ready for a job, but there were so many different options possible beyond that and graduate school felt like an opportunity to travel and learn about the world through research.” With the motivation of expanding her views, Dr. Hatoum-Aslan soon enrolled in a research program in Lebanon where she also had familial roots. “In this way, I also get to experience my culture through this program.”

During her master program, Dr. Hatoum-Aslan conducted research in skin cancer at the American University of Beirut in the biochemistry department. “My mentor was an amazing role model. Not only did she excel in her science, she was also a woman in science and having this experience allowed me to see myself in those shoes.” Upon completion of her post-graduate degree, Dr. Hatoum-Aslan moved to New York where she continued to pursue a PhD in bacterial studies. While Dr. Hatoum-Aslan had her heart set on cancer research at the onset of graduate school, she realized that options were at times limited, with opportunities that misaligned with the flow of life beyond the lab. “Then, I realized that I’m more passionate about the act of doing research, it’s the process of scientific inquiry that motivates me – as long as there is a good story, a good pathway. In general, I fell in love with science.”

After her PhD, Dr. Hatoum-Aslan continued into a teaching stream position where she taught both biochemistry and genetics. It was during this stage of her career that Dr. Hatoum-Aslan found her passion in designing courses, engaging with students and sharing knowledge. However, during her second year of teaching, Dr. Hatoum-Aslan felt that teaching became stale without research. With the absence of new flow of information, there was a feeling of disconnect. Dr. Hatoum-Aslan then decided to do a post-doc at Rockefeller University where she stayed for four years, working with CRISPR and anti-phage defences, while also teaching on the side. “Here, I was able to create a synergy between research and teaching. The curiosity that came from classes accelerated my research, and the topics I loved to teach fueled my research.”

Eventually, Dr. Hatoum ended up moving to the University of Illinois where her lab is currently established. “In a lot of ways, it felt like my trajectory chose me, not the other way. It feels like you end up where you need to be even if you take unexpected turns. It’s important to not get too married to a specific outcome and be open to opportunities that arise. Your career is an ever-evolving process, not just the goal. I’m in the right place for me now, but I can’t say in 10 years from now that will still hold true. I think that the exciting part of being in academia is exactly this rare intellectual freedom. We have to be open to casting a wide net.”

The narrative conveyed by Dr. Hatoum-Aslan is one that emphasizes the importance of curiosity, of keeping an open mind, and of embracing life step-by-step. As a parting message, Dr. Hatoum-Aslan remarks: “I always tell students to just be open and present 100% in the process, that’s all you can do. That’s all that’s in your control. You’ll end up in the right situation. It may not be how you planned it, but you’ll be taken care of one way or another.”

To read more about Dr. Hatoum-Aslan, please visit:

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