Our team

Mission Statement

Ultimately, it is the people we train and inspire, who will carry science into the future. It is our most sacred responsibility to mentor them well. * (words from Geoff Wahl, one of Toshi’s mentors).

Our laboratory strives to contribute to our community primarily through two mechanisms; 1) scientific discovery that has the potential to change cancer patients’ lives, and 2) training and mentorship to the next generation of research and clinical scientists – well-trained young individuals will be the source of continued future contributions. We as laboratory researchers also believe research and mentoring, including training and teaching, are inseparable. If we only care about what we actually do, we will get progressively narrowed. Young individuals ask important naive questions which are the source of fresh perspectives. Thus, mentorship and creating a welcoming and personalized training environment is a very top priority in the laboratory. At any level, we provide trainees with the back of mentor(s) who has their interests in mind and can support them moving forward. Our plan is to 1) actively identify their needs for support, 2) be a careful listener and learner for them, 3) create an open and interactive environment enabling mutual critical feedback, and 4) inspire them in our professional space.


Toshiro Hara, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Zhibek Bekezhankyzy, M.S.

Research Lab Specialist

Zhibek was born and raised in Kazakhstan and got her master’s degree in pharmacology and toxicology, as well as bachelor of science in chemistry from Nazarbayev University. She earned a scholarship from the Yessenov Foundation for her internship in 2023. During her master’s thesis, she focused on investigating the anti-proliferative activity of metformin, an anti-diabetic drug, and elucidating its mechanism of action on breast cancer cell lines. With over three years of research experience, Zhibek’s primary research interests are in cancer pharmacology, drug discovery, and the development of preclinical models.  

Hobbies: Hiking, playing the Kazakh national instrument ‘dombyra’ and swimming.

Darina Mukhamejanova

Visiting Undergraduate Student

Darina is an undergraduate student at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan, majoring in biological sciences. She participates in Dr. Dos Sarbassov’s laboratory to study how cell growth is regulated in KRAS mutant cancer cells under nutrient deprivation and cytotoxic drug treatment. Her research interests focus on understanding the molecular mechanisms of human diseases, functional omics methods, and cell signaling. Darina has a passion for writing and advocacy. She served as the editor-in-chief of the nonprofit foundation Beyond Curriculum, with the aim of promoting accessible education for high school students in Kazakhstan.

Hobbies: ITF Taekwondo, Rock Climbing, Mountaineering and Hiking

Sarah Syed

MD/PhD Student

Sarah is a first-year medical student at the University of Michigan, where she is a part of the MD/PhD program. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in neuroscience, with a focus on cellular and molecular neuroscience. As an undergraduate student, she worked on several projects in the Watanabe Lab at JHU School of Medicine, where her most recent project focused on investigating the role of microglia in managing synaptic debris accumulation in excitatory neurons. Her primary research interests include neuroimmune interactions, glial cell biology, and neuronal metabolism.