Photo: Joachim Rode

Portrait: “I wish there was a parallel world”

Tuesday 22 Jan 19

PhD at DTU

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Mother during the day. Researcher at night. Meet Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi who has developed a nanosensor to understand the language of bacteria.

While some are enjoying Netflix evening entertainment, nanophysicist and molecular biologist Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi analyses research results. With the children safely in bed, she pours herself a good cup of coffee and looks for patterns hiding in the results. Right now she feels happy.

In October, Fatima won the PhD dissertation of the year award at the annual PhD reception at DTU. With her dissertation, she has developed a revolutionary method for detecting one of the most problematic bacteria using a nanosensor that is easier, faster, and more sensitive than existing sensors. Compared to microbiological cultivation, which usually takes two to three days, the new method can produce a result in just 30 seconds. It can give patients a better quality of life and even save lives.

She uses the new knowledge as an entrepreneur and director in the start-up, PreDiagnose. The company has three employees and is located in Greve, Denmark. However, it is often first at night that Fatima has time for research activities, as she is mother to two girls—one aged three months and the other aged four years.

“I wish that there was a parallel world and I could travel around in time like Harry Potter and Hermione,” says 29-year-old Fatima.

“In some cultures, time is seen as a linear process where we cannot go back and change anything. In other cultures, time is a circular process in which errors are repeated. I believe time is like a spiral with a linear and a cyclic component. My understanding of time also relates to my research. If I adhere to specific patterns and research in the same way as everyone else, I fall into the same pitfalls. For me it’s about free fall—falling into something without knowing precisely where I land. It’s naive, but rewarding.”

Author debut at 14

It is hardly surprising to learn that as a child Fatima was always the one who climbed highest in the trees. Her ambitions are similarly high. As early as primary school, she showed an interest in science. When she finished technical college in Copenhagen’s Sydhavn district, she chose to study physics and nanotechnology at DTU, complementing her studies with biomedicine and molecular biology.

In her spare time she reads books on history and politics, making the most of short breaks during the day. It may be in a S-tog train from one destination to another—or in a clean room with an e-book. At 14, she made her writing debut with the book ‘When World War III Broke Out’—a science fiction story about a school class that destroys itself in cliques and enmity, culminating in the start of WWIII. These days, she mostly writes fiction.

"For me, it’s important that my research solves a real problem. "
Fatima AlZahra'a Alatraktchi

Photo: Joachim Rode

Fatima is married to Jafar Noori, who is a PhD student at DTU. He also has his own business which develops technologies to measure pollution in drinking water. The couple met each other as children. Together they enjoy discussing science and entrepreneurship.

“I think it’s amazing that you can think your way to an unseen world through science. Although we can’t see anything, we can be very precise thanks to our theories and experiments. For example, we know all kinds of things about what’s going on in the universe—but no one has ever been there. I find that fascinating. And a little magical. I understand why ancient wise women were called witches,” says Fatima.

Magic

She also feels it is magic when the nanosensor detects bacteria prior to the onset of symptoms. Her results are confirmed in clinical studies of cystic fibrosis patients at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen.
She has developed the sensor using nano- and microtechnology. It is ultra-sensitive and works by recognizing the communication signals that bacteria emit when preparing to establish an infection. The big problem with the existing diagnosis of bacterial infections is that the current method is not sensitive enough to identify them in their early stages.

Many patients therefore leave the doctor’s surgery after being told that they are not infected, even though they actually have an infection—with the consequence that the infection is not detected until many months later, at which time it can be incredibly difficult to kill.

Fatima knows this from first-hand experience. Shortly after she gave birth to her first child, she was admitted to hospital with a blood infection and lost consciousness. It took a week before the doctors found out which bacterium was causing the infection and could treat her with the appropriate antibiotic.

The need for new tools to fight bacterial infections is great, acute, and global. Bacterial infections are one of the major causes of mortality in the world.

“For me, it’s important that my research solves a real problem. It costs a lot of money to train a PhD, but often PhD dissertations end up on a shelf instead of helping others. Researchers continually write applications saying that they want to save mankind. But when the research is completed and published—they often focus on their careers. To me, that’s double standards,” says Fatima. 

Can ‘see’ bacteria’s language

Her PhD project is based on the phenomenon of ‘quorum sensing’, which describes a special trick that bacteria use to cheat the immune system. The bacteria are in a kind of hibernation that lasts right up to the point when they jointly decide that it is time to break out in disease.

By means of small signal molecules the bacteria inform each other about their overall numbers. As long as the bacteria are insufficient in number, the signals disappear in the surrounding environment, but as soon as they reach a sufficient number, they accumulate. The bacteria sense that there has been a change of signal concentration in their surroundings, after which they trigger biochemical reactions in order to ensure their survival—reactions that make us ill.

Although there has been research into quorum sensing in the past ten years, this is the first time that anyone has measured the bacteria’s signals so precisely in patient samples.

“When I started my PhD, I behaved as if there was no existing literature in the area. I started from scratch. Only later did I go back and study the literature. It turned out that I had gone in a completely different direction than the other researchers who had ignored the bacteria’s signals,” says Fatima.

“As a researcher, you are often told you should read all the available literature—and build on it. But this locks your thinking and then you fall into the same traps as the other researchers. I approached the problem as if it was an untouched area of research. This approach has resulted in me knowing which bacteria are in the patient, because I can ‘see’ the language they speak.”

CV

Photo: Joachim Rode

Fatima AlZahra’a Alatraktchi is 29 years old. She lives in Greve, Denmark, with her husband, Jafar, and her two daughters Judy and Mayasa.


  • October 2018: Receives award for this year’s PhD dissertation at DTU

  • October 2018: Held TEDx talk: ‘Hacking into the secret conversations (…) of bacteria’

  • June 2018: CEO at PreDiagnose

  • January 2018 Defended her PhD dissertation

  • December 2017: Postdoc at DTU

  • November 2017: Awarded The Lundbeck Foundation Talent Prize

  • June 2016: Received Bugge’s award for fictional works

  • September 2013: Defended thesis

  • August 2011: Bachelor thesis defended