Kareem Mohni says he did most of his qualifying exam for the University of Connecticut’s Ph.D. program while sitting at his mother’s hospital bedside as she battled uterine cancer.
“I’d go there at noon to be with my mother and I’d type in the room all day until my father got out of work to join us,” says Mohni.
Mohni, this year’s commencement speaker for the graduate school, is coincidentally doing his postdoctorate fellowship researching cancer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
The New Milford native graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cell biology and immediately began the Ph.D. program for biomedical sciences with a concentration in molecular biology and biochemistry in 2007.
“I’m interested in DNA replication and DNA repair,” he says.
Mohni did his Ph.D. research in the lab of Sandra Weller, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular, Microbial and Structural Biology, at the Health Center. Weller’s lab studies the replication of the herpes simplex virus and how it disables cellular DNA repair proteins to promote its own replication. The title of his thesis is Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Disables Cellular ATR-mediated DNA Damage Signaling.
Mohni says he really enjoyed working for Weller because she offered her students the freedom to follow their own ideas and because she created a work environment that “fostered great science.” He said the department offered a “very strong training plan” for its graduate students and the professors were readily available to assist with projects.
“She taught me to be a great scientist. While in Weller’s lab I published three first-author papers on my thesis research and I currently have another first author paper under review at a journal. During this time I attended seven science conferences and received travel awards to pay for me to go to many of them,” he says.
Mohni says he submitted all his paperwork for the Ph.D. program in September of last year and began his job at Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center October 1.
“The research being done in the department ranges from how things normally happen in the body all the way to personalizing new treatments based on research,” says Mohni.
Mohni’s interest in research started when he was in high school and became involved with a work-study program that met once a week for two months. He says there were about four students from each area high school involved.
He then did a summer internship before his first semester of college at Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals in Ridgefield, where he continued to intern every summer until he graduated with his bachelor’s degree.
“I had a great mentor there named Janice Brickwood. She knew how much I loved science and she’s the one who encouraged me to immediately get my Ph.D. and not take time off after I earned my undergraduate degree. We still keep in touch,” says Mohni.
Outside of the laboratory, Mohni says he used to volunteer every other weekend at the Animal Welfare Society in New Milford, which focuses on rescuing animals and finding them new homes.
“It’s one of the activities I really enjoy outside of the lab – helping animals and interacting with other volunteers,” he says.