Photo of Athar Khalil
Athar Khalil

Postdoc Spotlight of the Month: Athar Khalil

Growing up in a small Lebanese village, Athar Khalil was aware of the barriers women faced when pursuing higher education—but she had her mother, who earned her PhD at age 50, as a model for what could be possible. Khalil—backed by the steadfast support of her parents—followed in her mother’s footsteps, overcoming gender biases and financial constraints to earn a PhD in biomedical sciences and molecular oncology from the American University of Beirut in 2018. 

During her studies, she made a unique discovery: that the TBX2 subfamily of transcription factors act as tumor suppressors in lung adenocarcinoma. And now, she’s continuing her research as a postdoctoral scholar alongside Assistant Professor Christopher McFarland in the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. 

Khalil’s research at CWRU involves translating her basic-science discoveries into better lung cancer treatment by developing a preclinical animal model of TBX2 subfamily-driven lung cancer using cutting-edge technologies (TuBa sequencing). She recently led a project that delved into the molecular mechanisms underlying smoking-induced malignancies.

In addition to her research, Khalil is an involved member of the university community. She is an instructor in the Post-Baccalaureate Readiness Instruction for Biomedical Education (PRIME) program at the School of Medicine and was selected to participate in the CWRU Translational Fellow Program.

She was recently recognized by the American Association for Cancer Research after being chosen to attend the prestigious Translational Cancer Research for Basic Scientists Workshop. She said this workshop, led by some of the foremost translational scientists globally, enriched her expertise in various facets of translational research.

Learn more about Khalil’s experiences as a postdoc.

Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

1. What has been your best experience so far as a CWRU postdoc?

Starting from scratch in a foreign environment was indeed a unique adventure. The responsibility of setting up the lab and establishing protocols from the ground up required me to be resourceful, adaptable and creative. While it was undoubtedly tough, the experience has equipped me with invaluable skills that I wouldn’t have acquired otherwise. Collaborating with local colleagues, exploring new research avenues, and adapting to different scientific cultures has broadened my horizons and enhanced my problem-solving abilities. 

This chapter of my postdoc journey has instilled in me a deeper appreciation for collaboration, innovation and the ability to thrive in unfamiliar situations. Overall, despite the initial difficulties, being the trailblazer in my current lab has been an incredibly rewarding and transformative experience. It has not only enhanced my scientific skills but also shaped me into a more adaptable, persistent and capable researcher.

2. What’s your best piece of advice on how postdocs can make the most of their postdoc careers and prepare for their future goals?

Cultivate independence and resilience. Embrace the opportunity to take ownership of your research projects, leveraging the autonomy to drive your ideas forward. This independence not only nurtures your creativity but also enhances your problem-solving skills, which are invaluable assets for a successful career. Developing resilience is essential. Embrace failures as learning opportunities and bounce back with renewed determination. This trait not only strengthens your adaptability but also instills a sense of confidence in overcoming obstacles. 

By marrying independence with resilience, postdocs can create a robust foundation for their future pursuits. This combination equips you to steer your research with confidence, navigate uncertainties, and emerge stronger from setbacks—qualities that are integral to a thriving career beyond the postdoc stage.