Summer 2023

Class Act

Sarah Almutawa standing in front of lab equipment.
Photo by Michael P. King


As a middle school student in her native Saudi Arabia, Sarah Almutawa BS’23 found herself — somewhat unexpectedly — competing in the International Chemistry Olympiad.

She had not yet taken a single chemistry course, but her parents believed in her. They’d already witnessed her science aptitude and always encouraged her to try new things, however challenging or unfamiliar.

“My parents used to throw me into these kinds of opportunities all the time,” says Almutawa, who finished in the top five nationally for females in one Olympiad. “Now I throw myself into them.”

It’s an approach that has worked well for Almutawa, who graduated from UW–Madison in May with a degree in biology and certificates in global health and Biocore, the university’s biology core curriculum honors program. Last fall, Almutawa was a finalist for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship — a testament to the years she has spent seizing opportunities.

“Sarah should be very proud of all she’s accomplished,” says Julie Stubbs, director of UW’s Undergraduate Academic Awards Office. “It is an immense honor to make it to the finalist stage for a Rhodes Scholarship

In high school, Almutawa scored high on pre-college exams and was awarded a scholarship from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology that fully funded her education at UW. It’s an honor given to a select group of gifted Saudi Arabian students — and it’s a gift she intends to repay.

“I’ve always had the desire to give back to the Saudi people and the Saudi government for all the support they’ve given me,” Almutawa says. “I would love to take the knowledge I’ve learned here and use it to encourage Saudi children, especially young girls, to go into the sciences.”

Almutawa’s Rhodes application highlighted her work in the lab of Junsu Kang, an assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. Kang’s lab focuses on heart and fin regeneration in zebrafish, which share a large percentage of genes with humans. Unlike adult humans, however, zebrafish can regenerate their damaged heart tissues.

“Perhaps they have a set of proteins that help turn on these genes — it could be as simple as that,” Almutawa says. “If we could identify these proteins, we could hopefully translate that into therapies that address cardiovascular disease in humans and help heart attack patients recover.”

Almutawa’s independent research project used the genome editing tool CRISPR to study tissue regeneration in zebrafish. She worked with Kang to develop a new approach to what is known as knock-in genome editing — a strategy to add DNA into the genome. Although the technique is challenging, the new approach will improve its efficiency and potency, says Kang, who calls Almutawa an exceptionally gifted student and researcher.

“She makes sure she knows every step that goes into an experiment and why it is significant,” he says. “That is why I anticipate that she will become a great researcher.”

Looking back at her childhood, Almutawa says she can see the signs of a future STEM career. Her favorite videos starred Bill Nye the Science Guy, and she couldn’t wait to read the next issue of National Geographic.

“I think science was always my destiny,” says Almutawa, whose mother, one of her role models, holds a master’s degree in biology. “I was just a very curious kid.”

That curiosity extended to her pursuits at UW, from tackling the complexities of genome editing to downhill skiing for the first time this past winter with the Muslim Student Association.

“UW–Madison offers such great freedom to pursue your interests,” she says. “I feel confident that the experiences I’ve had here have prepared me well for whatever path I take going forward in life.”

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