International Student Wins Global Cleveland Pitch Contest

Fathima Nafrisha Cassim Bawa, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the biomedical sciences program specializing in pharmacology, won the Biomedical/Healthcare division of the Global Cleveland International Pitch with her pitch, “Drug Repurposing to Treat Metabolic Syndrome by Utilizing Machine Learning Approaches.”

Fathima Nafrisha Cassim Bawa Headshot

Global Cleveland is an economic development organization that works to connect northeast Ohio with the international community. Nancy Janis, vice president and COO of Global Cleveland, said the pitch competition was developed to spotlight international talent at the university level. 

“The whole idea is to underline international students,” Janis said. “There are four categories that participants compete in: business management and process improvement, community and civic innovations, healthcare/biomedical and IT/connected devices. The judges are real-world professionals that ask questions about the students’ research.”

Cassim Bawa presented her topic to a panel of three biomedical professionals. Her pitch was inspired by her research at Northeast Ohio Medical University where she studies therapeutic targets in genes to treat lipid metabolic disorders like fatty liver and atherosclerosis. Treating metabolic disorders focuses on converting lipids or fats into energy, which is essential for preventing serious health consequences. 

“We construct different transgenic mice models to study these diseases and how altering different genes or targets will affect the progression of these diseases,” Cassim Bawa said. “We use drug repurposing, or drugs that are already out there and approved by the FDA and we focus on combining drugs or substituting other ones to manipulate or modulate the diseases. Drug repurposing shifts the paradigm of one drug per one disease to targeting multiple genes and diseases.”

Cassim Bawa added the machine learning approach to address all the factors that can determine whether treatments for lipid metabolic disorders are successful. Machine learning uses artificial intelligence to predict how efficiently specific drugs can target other diseases outside of their initial design. 

“The basic goal of this tool is to increase the chances of personalized medicine,” Cassim Bawa said. “The algorithm combs through publicly available databases to predict how efficacious one drug or a drug combination can be for a specific patient.”

Image of Fathima Nafrisha Cassim Bawa presenting at the 2019 Global Cleveland International Pitch Contest

In her pitch, Cassim Bawa emphasized that bioinformatics, specifically the machine learning approach, will help researchers like her advance in the medical field because of the increased efficiency of drugs targeting diseases. However, data from people with ethnic backgrounds is limited because not many clinical trials have been conducted among these individuals. 

Joe Cimperman, CEO of Global Cleveland, praised Cassim Bawa for her bravery and her pitch.

"Nafrisha’s idea and plan for development were outstanding,” Cimperman said. “Her thoughtful presentation was innovative and her responses to the questions were insightful. We were lucky to listen and be a part of her vision, and we watch her future trajectory with excitement."

Sandra Morgan, director of external affairs and communications in the College of Arts and Sciences at Kent State, attended Cassim Bawa’s pitch and was also impressed by her presentation.

“She was extremely knowledgeable, very calm and tremendously polished,” Morgan said. “Her pitch was inventive, and it showcased the vast array of talent we have at Kent State, especially among our international students. I am excited that the judges were impressed by her pitch.”

Judges and contestants from the 2021 Global Cleveland International Student Pitch Contest

Cassim Bawa won the Biomedical/Healthcare category and a $500 cash prize. She said she was honored to win because of the significance it carries for her.

“First, this boosted my confidence towards working in the medical field, and it is even more meaningful because it shows that my actions and research are going to help people and later be translated to someone's life,” Cassim Bawa said. “Second, it gave me more confidence in talking to a generalized audience about science and what I do. And third, it gave me exposure to future connections with the judges who work in the biomedical field.” 

Originally from Sri Lanka, Cassim Bawa dreamed of pursuing a job in the medical field ever since she was a young girl.

“I got the initial inspiration to go into biosensors, pharmacology and drug discovery because of a family member who had a chronic illness,” Cassim Bawa said. “I kept asking questions about his diagnosis and medicine, and at one point my young mind suggested putting the pill in his leg instead of his mouth so it can work faster. My interest in these things led me to Kent State on a Fulbright Opportunity Grant where I have been able to conduct research on drug development and metabolic disorders.”

Cassim Bawa’s post-graduation dreams include getting her work published, working as a postdoctoral fellow and establishing her own lab. 

“I chose Kent State because of the Ph.D. in pharmacology. It had an established research group focused on metabolic disorders and a high number of international students that it attracted,” Cassim Bawa said. “I appreciate being able to represent Kent State’s Biomedical Sciences program at International Pitch. As an aspiring biomedical scientist, winning the award by taking my idea and research to a wider audience was truly an amazing experience for me.”

Learn more about the School of Biomedical Sciences and its research opportunities

POSTED: Friday, May 14, 2021 10:37 AM
Updated: Friday, December 9, 2022 02:59 PM
Brady Warmbein