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April 14, 2015

MSU student shunned in Egypt wins coveted PD Soros Fellowship

Raeuf Roushangar, a Michigan State University graduate student studying biochemistry, has won a prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans – an honor that comes with up to $90,000 stipend.

Roushangar was one of 30 winners of the premier graduate school fellowship for immigrants and children of immigrants. The recipients, chosen from a pool of 1,200 applicants, were selected for their potential to make significant contributions to U.S. society, culture or their academic field.

While winning the award is a high achievement, what Roushangar had to overcome is equally praiseworthy. Roushangar was born in Oman, to an Iranian father and Egyptian mother, and grew up and attended high school in Cairo, Egypt.

“Growing up in Egypt was hard, as I had to endure hateful and discriminatory actions for nearly two decades due to Egypt’s intolerance of minority religions,” said Roushangar, who is of the Baha’i faith.

“Religion is documented on government identification, pronounced in dress and even displayed as part of physical appearance. Because religion is omnipresent, hostility toward minority faiths can quickly turn from uncomfortable to unlawful.”

His faith remained strong, and his dedication to academics blazed brightly. He posted the second-highest placement score in Cairo for the college placement test. But he was removed from the top-ten list because his father wasn’t Egyptian. Later, during his first year at Cairo University, he was suspended because of his faith.

Unable to pursue his education, Roushangar left Egypt and traveled alone to the United States, with only $600 and two bags of clothes. He was homeless for six months in Grand Rapids, Mich., wandering the streets at night and staying in the public library during the day. Rather than feel downtrodden, though, he felt inspired.

“I had never felt more free, welcomed and secure as then,” Roushangar said.

Later, he landed a job as a math and chemistry tutor at Grand Rapids Community College, eventually transferring to MSU. In his first year, he founded an international nonprofit organization to bring medical supplies to poor communities – Generate Help 2 Heal Generations. GH2HG has collected and shipped more than $500,000 worth of medical supplies from the U.S. to poor communities around the world.

Roushangar’s dedication has earned him many honors including the Clinton Global Initiative University, MSU’s Pamela J. Fraker Undergraduate Scholarship, MSU Leader of the Year and many others.

He plans to finish his doctorate at MSU where he is working with George Mias, physicist and geneticist, on research that focuses on “omics” technologies and their applications in personalized/precision medicine.

“We have so many options for our simple needs, such as clothes and hairstyles, but when it comes to something as complex as treating diseases, we seemingly have only limited options, many times uniformly treating everyone for a given condition,” Roushangar said. “I want to develop mathematical platforms that can be implemented for more personalized, precision medicine.”

Roushangar wants to create new computational methods that can help track the response to diseases, which hopefully aid in early detection and diagnosis, possibly before the patients develop external, detectable symptoms.

“The goal is to shift the focus from late treatment to early prevention,” Roushangar said. “With the PD Soros award comes great responsibility. I’m hoping to show that I’m worthy of this award, by doing my part to help revolutionize medicine.”

Achieving so many honors so quickly and having to overcome blatant discrimination has left Roushangar humbled and more tolerant of others, rather than arrogant and jaded. It’s also opened many doors in higher education.

When asked why he chose MSU for his undergraduate and advanced degrees instead of applying to places like Stanford and Harvard, he paused and answered: “When you have your identity taken away, you feel strongly about the place that gives it back to you, gives you your confidence. This mattered to me, and for me MSU is that place. That’s why I chose to stay.”

Winning the fellowship places Roushangar with a renowned community of PD Soros alumni, which includes U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, leading Ebola researcher Pardis Sabeti, the first and only Iranian-American elected as a state (Washington) senator Cyrus Habib and many others.

By: Layne Cameron