Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A conversation with Orsalem Kahsai

Molecular biogist Orsalem Kahsai

Part I

Issayas:  Would you briefly tell us about yourself?

Orsalem Kahsai: My name is Orsalem Kahsai. I was born in Eritrea and grew-up in Ethiopia. My father’s and mother’s names are Yohannes (John) Kahsai and Hadas Tekele, respectively. For the earlier part of my life, I was raised by my mother as my parents were separated when I was very young. Their separation was due to the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and my father’s affiliation with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). The political climate at the time forced my father to leave the country of his birth for a life abroad and I did not get a chance to see him until Eritrea’s independence in 1991. My parents always wanted the best for me and wanted me to have access to all possible opportunities so my father ended up sponsoring me to join him here in America. After going through lengthy immigration process, I was able to join him here in the US and to finally get reacquainted with my biological father at the age 17. My father was very patient and understanding and made me feel at ease during my transition and acclamation period here in the new world. He was a father and a mother to me at the time where I needed some familiarity and order in my life. I believe it is the unconditional love and support that I received from both my parents that has helped me get through life so far.

I started school as soon as I arrived in the US and was able to complete my bachelor degree in microbial biotechnology focusing fermentation, from University of California- Davis. I proceeded to pursue and obtain a Master’s of Science in Molecular and Cellular Biology from California State University Hayward in 2005. I was also always working while I attended school. From 1998-2005, I worked as a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California. My field of research included sequencing the human genome and studying human genetics codes. My work had been professionally recognized and presented on the cover page for a 2005 “HAYWIRE” news magazine edition. In 2005, I embarked on a new phase of life by getting engaged, relocating and accepting a new research position in Seattle, Washington. I got married to my wonderful husband Esayas Ogbe in 2006 and we have three beautiful children, Adam (5), Alex (4), and Arsema (3). Since late 2005, I have also been with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center as a research scientist and lab manager working in the division of public health science cancer prevention program.

Issayas: What is "HAYWIRE"?

Orsalem: "HAYWIRE" is a news magazine for alumna and friends of Cal State Hayward (California). Currently it's known as Cal State East Bay.

Issayas:  As an undergraduate you studied microbiology and as a graduate you studied molecular biology, why the change? What do they do?

Orsalem: Most of the time, a microbiologist studies the growth and characteristics of microorganisms such as fungi, algae, and bacterial. However, I did study Biotechnology, emphasizing microbiology and fermentation. Having said that, most microbial biotechnologists engage themselves in the fields of food fermentation, virology, immunology, bioinformatics, and molecular biology work.  In my case, I was able do much of a molecular biologist job -- sequencing human genome as well as studying human disease, and common form of variations across human DNA segments.

Issayas: When you worked for Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, in California, your cutting edge research was sequencing a human genome and studying human genetics codes, which have been recognized professionally. Would you tell us about the aforementioned in layman's language?

Orsalem: As a research scientist at the Joint Genome institute (JGI), I worked in one of five project sites responsible for deciphering the human genetic code. We were staffed with scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National LAB, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and Los Alamos National Lab. At JGI, we have mapped 11% of the sequence of human genome out of the 3.2 billion human DNA base pairs contained in each human cell. Now scientists around the globe can use this information for new way to diagnose disease, and discover or develop new treatments.

Next: Part II.