Graduate Reaches Four Degrees of UT Dallas Inspiration with 2nd PhD

Dr. Massa Shoura and Dr. Stephen Levene

Dr. Massa Shoura (left), with her advisor, Dr. Stephen Levene, will become the first female student to receive a PhD in biomedical engineering from UT Dallas.

Dr. Massa Shoura will finish her final university semester this month with a flourish, earning her fourth academic degree in eight years and her second PhD — all from UT Dallas. 

With a PhD in molecular and cell biology from the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics already in hand, Shoura will be one of the first three students — and the first female — to earn a PhD in biomedical engineering from UT Dallas. 

“It’s extremely unusual for anyone to receive two PhDs, under any circumstances,” said Dr. Stephen Levene, professor of bioengineering at UT Dallas and Shoura’s advisor for both doctorates. “But Massa has been an unusual student in several respects, and she happened to be at the right place at the right time.” 

In 2006, Shoura transferred from Richland College to UT Dallas as a molecular and cell biology major. She earned her bachelor's degree in 2008, but also took graduate level classes as an undergraduate. That put her on a fast track to a master’s degree, which she received in 2010. 

Working with Levene, who was then a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences, Shoura began the research for her molecular and cell biology doctorate, which she received in 2013. For that project, she developed technology that uses fluorescent probes to tag and track the progress of a particular type of biochemical reaction involved in rearranging genetic material. But she wanted to take the research a step further. 

It’s extremely unusual for anyone to receive two PhDs, under any circumstances. But Massa has been an unusual student in several respects, and she happened to be at the right place at the right time. She’s graduating at a time when there are excellent opportunities for women in bioengineering.

Dr. Stephen Levene,
professor of bioengineering

“I was curious about how my system truly behaves in the test tube,” Shoura said. “Molecular dynamics simulations of biological systems are extremely valuable because they provide insights into molecular motions on the atomic scale. Although we use various types of computer modeling in our lab, at the time, we had no expertise in this particular type of simulation technique.” 

With Levene’s encouragement, Shoura initiated a collaboration with Dr. Steven Nielsen, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Sarah Harris of the University of Leeds in the U.K. Both collaborators’ research focuses on molecular dynamics (MD) simulations of biomolecules. 

“Computer simulations did not come easily to me,” Shoura said. “I’m an experimentalist at heart. I’d rather mix something in a test tube than simulate it. 

“But students shouldn’t be afraid to pursue new things, or to look for collaborations outside their lab. I felt I had to tackle simulation because it’s a research tool that’s becoming increasingly important. You never know when you might need it. Even if I don’t use it myself in the future, now I know enough about the method and its limitations that I could work knowledgeably with a collaborator.” 

Meanwhile, Levene moved from biology to the Department of Bioengineering, which UT Dallas created in 2010 as the fifth academic department in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. Bioengineering faculty collaborate with researchers in electrical engineering, materials science, biology, chemistry and other areas at UT Dallas as well as with researchers from a variety of disciplines at both UT Southwestern Medical Center and UT Arlington. 

The timing for Shoura was fortuitous. 

“When my advisor moved to bioengineering, I started talking with the bioengineering graduate students,” said Shoura, who received a Louis Beecherl Jr. Graduate Fellowship from the Jonsson School to support her work. “I felt that a bioengineering approach would be a good fit for what I wanted to do next.”

Simulating a biochemical process by MD requires tracking millions of interacting atoms and molecules, a task so complex that simulating just a fraction of a second of Shoura’s biological system required the power of a supercomputer. The result, in conjunction with a new set of experiments soon to be published, provided Shoura with enough material for her to complete a dissertation for her biomedical engineering doctorate. 

With the breadth of research experience and skills she gained at UT Dallas, Shoura received several offers of postdoctoral positions from some of the country’s leading research institutions, including Harvard, the University of California, San Francisco, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In the end, she accepted an offer from Stanford University School of Medicine, where in January she will begin working in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning biologist Dr. Andrew Fire.

“Leaving UT Dallas is a bit hard for me, because I am in love with what I do in the lab,” Shoura said. “I feel the lab is my domain, and that I can express myself there. It’s truly me that comes out in my research. 

“But I would not have made it without the faculty members, collaborators and colleagues who helped me tremendously.” 

Levene, a Cecil H. and Ida Green Professor in Systems Biology Science, said Shoura has been a model graduate student whose caliber is hard to come by. 

“She’s going to be a hard act to follow,” he said.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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