Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) won first place in the 12th annual Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP), run by Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF).

The project, titled ‘Role of the Human Gut Microbiota in Autism Spectrum Disorders and Inflammatory Bowel Diseases’ was led by Dr Ghizlane Bendriss, lecturer in biology at WCM-Q. Her research team, comprised of two other faculty mentors and six students, was awarded the top prize in recognition of the important achievements and outcomes of the project. WCM-Q is a member of Qatar Foundation.

Dr Ghizlane Bendriss
Dr Ghizlane Bendriss

Working alongside Dr Bendriss on the project were fellow faculty members Dr Dalia Zakaria, also a lecturer in biology in the WCM-Q premedical curriculum, and Dr Noha Yousri, assistant professor of research in genetic medicine, with students Dana Al Ali, Ameena Shafiq, Nada Mhaimeed, Mohammed Salameh, Zain Burney, and Krishnadev Pillai.

In this year’s UREP contest, 14 projects were selected for the final round, out of the original pool of 46 projects produced by research teams at universities across Qatar. Students from each of the 14 shortlisted teams then presented their projects and the judging panel awarded prizes to the top three.

Students Dana Al Ali and Ameena Shafiq were tasked with presenting the WCM-Q project to the panel of judges, a process which this year took place via video conference because of the physical distancing rules in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. Second place in this year’s contest was won by Texas A&M University at Qatar, and the third place by Qatar University.

WCM-Q winning research team in UREP competition
WCM-Q students who were part of the winning research team in QNRF’s UREP competition.

According to third-year medical student Dana Al Ali, they have been working on the project for about three years now and for it to compete and win was very surreal.

Our project was one of the first studies to look into gut microbiota in Qatar, which made its results unique and new to Qatar. Of course, this project would have not reached its full potential without the support of QNRF, our mentors, especially Dr Ghizlane, and my fellow team members, who worked tirelessly on this project.

Dr Khaled Machaca, Senior Associate Dean for Research, Innovation & Commercialization at WCM-Q, said the achievement highlights the superb calibre of their students and faculty. He said that it is especially gratifying during these extraordinary times as it demonstrates their outstanding commitment to research.

We are very grateful to QNRF for their continued support of the UREP programme and for running this inspiring contest, which does so much to fuel the enthusiasm and ambition of young researchers all over Qatar.

The UREP contest is designed to promote research-based education and hands-on learning, helping students gain experience of team-based research and collaboration with faculty, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and other undergraduates or research staff in Qatar.

Dr Bendriss said she is very proud of her team.

This project was not easy to implement and I am grateful to all those who contributed to its success.

She said that the project-based learning was an opportunity for future doctors to gain knowledge, practical skills and the inquisitive mindset needed to succeed in their careers. It was also an occasion to explore the novel paradigm that links the gut microbiome to many modern diseases. The presentation may be accessed through this link.

For more information about the research programmes offered at WCM-Q, visit their website at