About Riyam Al Msari

Riyam Al Msari, born in Baghdad, Iraq, faced a turbulent childhood shaped by the 2003 war. At eight, her life took a traumatic turn when her home was bombed in 2006, leading to her family's displacement to Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite experiencing educational and ethnic discriminatory challenges, Riyam remained undeterred, wholeheartedly embracing her education. Soon after her father immigrated to the United States to seek political asylum in 2016, her mother was diagnosed with head and neck cancer, leaving Riyam, at just 18, as her mother’s primary caregiver. Despite her mother’s survival, Riyam’s realization of the limitations and collateral damage caused by standardized cancer therapies, which left her mother in a compromised state, invigorated her determination to pioneer translational cancer-targeted therapies.

In 2018, when Riyam was 20, she came to the United States and reunited with her father and the rest of her family who arrived later with significant help from then Senator Kamala Harris’s office. Despite her Iraqi university credits not transferring, Riyam persevered and continued her education at Houston Community College as a Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) scholar and then graduated magna cum laude and as a Regents Scholar from UC San Diego’s bioengineering program. Fueled by her mother’s cancer battle, Riyam’s science passion thrived in the labs of UC San Diego Professors Joseph Califano and J. Silvio Gutkind where she identified the crucial role of tumor draining lymph nodes in head and neck cancers, contributing to a clinical shift towards lymphatics preserving neoadjuvant immunotherapies and her co authorship in several journals.

Riyam’s understanding of cancer as both a cellular and immune anomaly, drove her to further deepen her immune oncology expertise through a collaboration with ALX oncology where she observed the systemic toxicity and inflammation associated with immunotherapies. Recognizing these limitations, Riyam embarked on her PhD at MIT’s biological engineering department in the Irvine and Wittrup Lab to employ engineering strategies for localized immune targeting of cancers. She aspires to establish a startup that bridges preclinical and clinical oncology research, specializing in the development of innovative protein and biomaterial-based translational cancer immunotherapies.

As the diversity chair on the Biological Engineering Board and standing member at the graduate DEI hub at MIT, Riyam is committed to advocating for marginalized voices, leading inclusivity initiative workshops, and fostering a scientific discourse enriched by diverse perspectives.


  • PhD in Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • BS in Bioengineering (Biotechnology), University of California, San Diego

Professional Fields

Milestones and Recognition

  • Anushka Michailova Memorial Award, UC San Diego
  • Lemelson Engineering Presidential Fellowship, MIT
  • Whitehead Fellowship in Bioengineering, MIT
  • Regents Scholarship from UC San Diego

Related Articles

Meet More Fellows