He Tutors Prisoners, Helps Minorities, and Engineers Proteins at Princeton

Diya Abdeljabbar, a 2007 NJIT grad, is excelling at Princeton.

Diya Abdeljabbar is doing many interesting things at Princeton University.

He is doing research that could result in major scientific breakthroughs such as the basis for making better pharmaceuticals.  He’s traveling the country discussing his research at academic conferences and his studies have been published in three major scientific journals.

Helping Others

And it’s not just in the lab that Diya’s having success. At Princeton, where he's doing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, he helped start a summer research program for minority students from Union City High School.  Last summer, four Union City students spent six weeks living and doing research at Princeton. The students learned so much that they were later admitted into top colleges such as Yale, MIT and Brown. The program continues this summer with four more students from Union City, the city where Diya grew up and went to high school. The research program is co-sponsored by ACS-Project SEED.

In his free time -- and it’s amazing he has any – Diya also tutors prisoners. Once a week, he visits the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in nearby Trenton, N.J.  He teaches math and other subjects to the inmates.  His tutoring is part of a prisoner assistance program affiliated with Princeton.

“Studies show that inmates who leave prison with a high school diploma or more are less likely to return to prison,” says Diya, who graduated from NJIT in 2007 with a chemical engineering degree. “I’ve gotten to know many of the inmates and I really enjoy helping them learn.”

His Research

Diya has a year left before he earns his Ph.D., but he’s already on track to becoming a leading researcher in his field.  In his research, Diya adds unnatural amino acids to genetically engineered proteins, which he hopes can also be done with therapeutic proteins in drugs.  The unnatural amino acids make the proteins more stable, which means they last longer in a person’s bloodstream.  That means the proteins or drugs have more time to be effective and carry out their intended function. 

“In a nutshell,” says Diya, “nature has given us a set toolbox of 20 amino acids to build possible proteins. But in my research I choose to use more than just these 20 amino acids. I genetically engineer cells that will then automatically add unnatural amino acids to proteins.  My objective is to engineer and improve the protein's properties for a specific application, such as creating stable and more effective drugs.”

Remembering His Roots

Diya comes from a working class immigrant family – his parents came to America from Ar-Ram, a suburb of Jerusalem, when he was an infant.  He grew up in Union City, a city rife with minorities, and he has not forgotten his roots or those who helped him.  At NJIT, he was in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the Albert Dorman Honors College and the McNair Research Program.  And as for high school, he says he owes much to his former science teacher, Nadia Makar, a presidential award winning teacher who spurred his interest in science.  Makar was his chemistry teacher at then Union Hill High and also his adviser for Project SEED, through which he did research at a university, UMDNJ, when he was a junior in high school. 

“Just for the record,” says Diya, “Nadia Makar is the single best thing that happened to Union City public schools PERIOD.  She put Union City students on the map. Every year she sends about four or five Union City grads to NJIT.”

Diya stays in close touch with Makar.  She helped him and his adviser at Princeton start the Project SEED research program for Union City students at Princeton.  

Makar, who now chairs the Science Department at Union City High, said she recently received a phone call from one of Diya’s Princeton professors.  The professor told her that Diya was a great researcher and asked her how Princeton University could recruit more talented minority students like Diya.

“I told him that we have plenty of great minority students right here in Union City,” said Makar. 

(By Robert Florida, Office of Strategic Communications)