Alumni Profiles Series: Salma Rezk
Salma Rezk is a project leader at Parexel, a global clinical research organization (CRO) and biopharmaceutical services company. She received her B.S. in Biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her M.S. in Population Health Sciences from Duke, where she was interested in cancer research and health disparities. In her current position, she enjoys working with and learning about a variety of diseases and therapeutic areas.
What influenced your decision in coming to Duke?
I am a first-generation immigrant from Egypt and I've lived in North Carolina pretty much my whole life. I've always been interested in the health care field. Initially, I wanted to practice medicine, but in college my interests turned primarily toward research. My dad played a big role in that, I think. He worked in research for his whole life and that passion passed down to me in a way. During my undergraduate studies, I started volunteering in different research labs, both wet labs and interventional research. After college, I worked at UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center conducting clinical trials focused on breast cancer research. That’s where I learned about Duke’s program in Population Health Sciences and it really sparked my interest!
How did you spend your time at Duke?
At Duke, my focus shifted toward precision medicine and genetic testing in the cancer setting. My research tied these fields together, looking at them through the lens of health disparities. My master's thesis examined disparities within genetic testing. Studies suggested that genetic testing uptake is not seen equally among all patients. The data captured from genetic testing is used to develop targeted therapies for those with data available. Because White patients tend to seek genetic testing more often than non-White patients, we have less data on non-White populations. As a result, this reduces the availability of clinically useful data specific to other populations. My thesis focused on breast, colorectal, and lung cancer within the Duke Hospital population with a focus on equal access for genetic testing in order to promote health equity. My advisory board and I found racial disparities with regard to colorectal cancer at Duke, which was a really interesting finding. I had Devon Check, Meira Epplein, and Michaela Dinan on my advisory board. They helped me develop my thesis and were just as enthusiastic as I was despite the limitations of what we could do with the data. They were very encouraging!
I also participated in a SAS internship program. This experience gave me the opportunity to learn about and explore careers in industry. I was set on continuing my research in a Ph.D. program but began to open up to the idea of a career in this setting as well. But life comes at you fast! COVID had peaked and I was expecting my first child during the second year of the master’s program, which changed my perspective on a lot of things. Through networking and further exploration of career options, I was able to land the position I currently have at Parexel.
What were your favorite moments at Duke?
It was fun to be able to focus on my interest in cancer. I will say getting to that place was really daunting and challenging. I had several interests. At Duke, I was able to hone in on my interests in cancer research and identify where I could contribute. It was really rewarding, being able to navigate towards this topic myself and have people support my idea. I also really enjoyed the friends I made. Our cohort is very small, and, despite the pandemic forcing isolation upon us, we all still stay in touch.
How did your graduate studies prepare you for your current position?
During my time at Duke I learned more about careers in industry. I came into the program with the mindset to pursue a Ph.D. However, I think that the program really prepared me for what I’m currently doing. In my current role as a project leader at a clinical research organization, I oversee clinical trials that partner with our company. I ensure our study timelines are being met, safety and efficacy of the patients and data are maintained, and that our data are of good quality. Thanks to my training, I have the confidence to say, “Hey, I don't think this is working. Let's maybe change this about the study design.” So, I’m able to contribute using my expertise in research and study design I learned at Duke.
What other experiences led you to your current career?
After I graduated, I spent another year working at UNC as a clinical research project manager in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, and I was still determined to pursue a Ph.D. I worked for a PI who was very seasoned in her field and well known. She worked day and night and was still under pressure to publish regularly. It wasn't like she had this huge team or anything. It was just she and I, and maybe a couple of students. That year prompted a lot of reflection. I had always wanted to do this, but was it the right thing for me now? I realized that it takes a lot to do your own research and to run your own team. It requires you to work nonstop. At that time, having just become a mom, that lifestyle wasn't compatible with my circumstances.
I still think I could have a research career and excel. But at the same time, I don't want to put that much pressure on myself. I have different priorities and want different things out of life, and I think that's fine. It took me a long time to come to this conclusion and be okay with it. I always thought, “What if I regret this one day?” and “What if I feel like I gave up on my dream?”, but I came to realize it's okay to evolve and grow, and to change your priorities. I'm still contributing and giving back within my career. In fact, I feel like I'm making a difference at a faster rate than if I had stayed in academia. We're running clinical trials that, after cleaning up the data and doing the necessary analysis, produce results within a year and a half that could change people's lives. So, I don't feel like I gave up. We’re causing so much change and we’re doing it fast.
Is there a favorite project you’re working on right now?
I'm actually working on a lot of things, so it’s difficult to decide. One thing that’s exciting about my current role is that I'm not just tied to one therapeutic area. Given that I have a cancer research background, I'm still learning about the other therapeutic areas that are part of my job. So, that's been really fun to learn about different therapeutic areas.
What advice would you share with current graduate students?
Take advantage of being in person and seeing all of these amazing people around you. What I really loved is just being able to walk into someone's door and say, “Hey, I have a question.” Because of the pandemic, I really missed that for a year and a half of my master's. I also think it’s important to talk to as many people as you can, learn what they do, and see what they recommend. Everyone has such great insight and connections on so many things. So it’s good to share your interests with them and make those connections. During the pandemic, I valued and missed these little interactions so much more.
Recent M.S. graduate, Population Health Sciences
Melina Ksor is a first-generation student and the first Montagnard woman to attend Duke University, where she graduated with an M.S. in Population Health Sciences in 2023. She is a certified health education specialist and is interested in bridging health disparities through educating health data/research using data visualization tools. Over the summer and fall semester of 2022, she completed an internship with NC Medicaid to analyze, clean, interpret, and visualize data and dashboards to support the Healthy Opportunities Pilot Program. She is currently a Clinical Research Coordinator with the Duke Center for Childhood Obesity Research (DCCOR) and hopes to continue improving the communication of scientific research and implementation.