MCPHS Alum and L'Oréal Senior Scientist on Finding Her Way and Giving Back
Dr. Hawasatu Dumbuya came to the United States as a teenager. She was born and raised in France to parents originally from Sierra Leone; her parents moved to France after her father, who was a professional soccer player, had the opportunity to sign and play with a French club. Years later, he was invited to participate in a soccer tournament in the Boston area, where he reconnected with family and close friends, which eventually persuaded him to move to the United States with his wife and children to be closer to the Sierra Leonean community there and to pursue better opportunities.
Dr. Dumbuya came to the U.S with minimal English proficiency during her sophomore year, attending Medford High School, where she was placed in English Language Learners (ELL) classes. Joining mainstream classes senior year allowed her to take an anatomy and physiology course, which sparked her interest in health sciences. That class ended up altering the course of her life, sending her on a journey that would one day land her at, of all places, L'Oréal USA.
Dr. Dumbuya was fascinated by the human body and wanted to know more about how it worked. With the encouragement of her guidance counselor and especially from her teachers, she decided to apply to colleges. She discovered MCPHS University, and she applied and was accepted.
Dr. Dumbuya initially wanted to major in Premed and become a pediatrician. She spoke to an MCPHS advisor, who said that, if she was specifically interested in the anatomy and physiology of the human body, she might consider a pharmacology and toxicology major. This “PharmTox” major was where she could learn more about how the human body works, how drugs and toxins affect the body, and how the body responds to these agents. Convinced that this major will be a perfect fit and make her a more competitive for medical school, Dr. Dumbuya decided to enroll in the PharmTox program.
As part of the curriculum at MCPHS, Dr. Dumbuya took a molecular biology class her sophomore year. The course covered cancer biology, which sparked her research interest. She spoke with her professor, who said, “You know, Hawa, you can go down the street to Dana-Farber and get an internship, and really get to see what cancer biology is all about.” That summer she was accepted to the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in the Continuing Umbrella Research Experience (CURE) program, which exposes underrepresented undergraduate and high school students to cancer research for 10 weeks.
“It really changed my life,” says Dr. Dumbuya. “I got the chance to get exposed to real research cancer pharmacology.. That’s what led me to want to go to graduate school after MCPHS.”
And so after MCPHS, Dr. Dumbuya went to pursue her doctorate in Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at Brown University, with the intent on doing cancer pharmacology research. However, following her first-year rotations, she decided to join Dr. Elena Oancea's molecular biology laboratory, where her thesis work would focus on understanding how sun exposure causes one’s skin to tan at the cellular level.
Towards the end of her PhD program, Dr. Dumbuya was considering a career in industry, and thanks to her research advisor, she got the opportunity to learn about L’Oreal USA Research & Innovation. She was impressed by L'Oréal’s research commitment and capabilities, and she eventually found a role fitted to her expertise. Today, Dr. Dumbuya is a Senior Scientist in the Translational Discovery Clinical Innovation team, where she leads the team efforts on developing novel concepts, methods, and protocols for clinical evaluations of actives for photoprotection, pollution, and pigmentation. Every time, the in vitro and/or formulations labs have a new active ingredient, Dr. Dumbuya is responsible for reviewing the in vitro dossier of the active ingredient to understand its molecular mechanism of action. She then leads the clinical research studies to evaluate for proof of efficacy.
It’s a fascinating and exciting career that not even she saw coming. But “with the support of my professors,” Dr. Dumbuya says, “I found my way and my passion in research. Whatever you major in, MCPHS makes sure you’re prepared. They give you the foundation to stand out from the crowd.”
Dr. Dumbuya is grateful for the classes and the guidance that put her on the path to MCPHS and beyond, so she decided to give back. Six years ago, she started the Science Career Program (SCP) at Medford High School. The program aims to encourage English language learners and students of color to pursue higher education, to provide skills for success within and beyond the classroom, and to offer a view of various STEM and non-STEM careers. She says that the goal is to provide “continuous support for students’ academic capabilities and potential. We want to make sure that they receive reliable information and encouragement for their academic and personal growth.”
Dr. Dumbuya says her roles as a peer mentor, orientation leader, and international ambassador at MCPHS shaped her as someone who could relate to students. Since its start as an all-volunteer program, SCP has twice received funding from Medford Educational Foundation, and has had a tremendous impact and received extensive positive feedback from both the teachers and students. Although she now lives and works in New Jersey, Dr. Dumbuya continues to manage SCP remotely: she plans and coordinate with teachers events, invites speakers, develops content, and holds one-on-one meetings with students to keep track of their academic interest and progress; she also goes back to MHS at least once every two months (in normal times) to interact face to face with her students.
Dr. Dumbuya’s journey has led her on a unique career path, and she wants others to know how crucial her education was to finding professional fulfillment. She credits MCPHS for exposing her to the sort of research that focused her interests.