Dania Daye is on her way to becoming a physician-scientist-engineer after a difficult childhood in Lebanon.
Dania Daye vividly remembers the summer night in 1985 when piercing screams erupted from her small neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon. Cries for help filled the air as the building across the street from her house was engulfed in flames—a result of the nearly constant bombing during Lebanon’s lengthy civil war.
As traumatic as those memories were, they would only get worse for Daye, whose family was forced to move from house to house to escape the bombardment. Despite the moves, her father was injured in a car bombing near her family’s home several years later, when Daye was about seven years old. She remembers rushing to the hospital to be with her father. “In the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, where destruction and murder were rampant, the hospital was the first place I saw anyone try to help others,” Daye says. “My father survived, and I came to view the doctor who saved him as a role model.” At that moment, she decided to become a doctor herself.
That dream might have been cut short were it not for her maternal grandmother, who convinced Daye’s parents to send her to a nearby French-speaking Catholic school to pursue her education. Her grandmother, a French teacher, “devoted one hour every night to ensure that I had a strong grasp of everything I studied,” Daye says. “I remember her saying, ‘I want you to have a strong foundation in every subject so that when you grow up, you can choose what you want to do.’”
When Daye was 16, her family moved from Beirut to Houston. She arrived in the United States speaking little English, but that did not prevent her from diving into schoolwork. “It was really, really hard for me,” she recalls. But she quickly moved out of classes meant for non-English speakers and into advanced placement courses. Although Daye grappled with the decision to put a college education ahead of her family’s wishes for her to marry, she applied and was accepted on a scholarship to Rice University to study engineering. Still, she struggled and considered dropping out numerous times during her first two years in college. Research is what kept her going, she says.
In the lab of Rebecca Richards-Kortum, an HHMI professor at Rice, she worked on new methods to detect cancer. The experience made her “so, so excited about doing research,” Daye says. “You're really getting to answer questions that no one else can answer, and you can make a difference.” Richards-Kortum encouraged her to pursue her dreams, but also reminded her that it was possible to have both a career and a family. “Both Richards-Kortum and my grandmother showed me that while I could not change the events that were transpiring around me, I could always control my own destiny,” she says.
While at Rice, Daye received a scholarship to work on the school’s emergency response team, where she eventually rose to become a supervisor. That experience shaped how she chose to view both science and medicine. “Researchers work to help humanity on a global level, while physicians help individual people,” she explains. “After being involved with patient care at both levels, I could not see myself having a career in which I practice one level of care but not the other.”
After college, Daye entered an M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine that focuses on biomedical imaging. The doctoral portion of her training is supported by the HHMI-NIBIB (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and BioEngineering) Interfaces Program in Biomedical Imaging, created with support from HHMI to encourage biomedical research institutions to develop graduate-level training programs in interdisciplinary research. In her M.D./Ph.D. program, students are usually called physician-scientists. But Daye always pushes herself further. “I really want to be a physician-scientist-engineer.” For example, in the laboratory of Ravinder Reddy, Daye tackled a problem she had learned about in her medical school classes. Currently, biopsies, which carry risk, are the only way to measure the progression of liver disease. She wanted to find a noninvasive way to do the same thing, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Because her labmates concentrated mainly on the physics of the technique, she sought expertise from a liver specialist at Penn, Rebecca G. Wells. “I want to be the bridge between these two people who think so differently,” Daye says.
Daye tested her MRI technique on liver samples and produced disease assessments that matched the biopsy results. The technique shows “great promise,” says Peter F. Davies, director of the Interfaces program at Penn, so much so that the team is beginning work on a clinical trial. “Boy, has she excelled in everything she's done,” Davies says. “She's able to concentrate a huge amount of work in a very short period. She's a natural leader.”
Now 23, Daye considers it her responsibility to mentor other females in science and engineering, especially those from Middle Eastern backgrounds. “I want to be for them what my grandmother and Richards-Kortum were for me. Having someone to guide me through the stages of what was an arduous journey, made all the difference.”