Afreen Allam - Driven and Empathetic
When she was in high school, Afreen Allam, now founder and CEO of the biomedical company SiNON Therapeutics, began volunteering at the Duke Cancer Center. “I come from a typical Asian family where medical school was the only route that was an option,” Allam, 28, tells Bustle; this volunteer work was meant to help further her progress along that path. But it wasn't easy — although not because of the work itself. “The first two weeks were extremely hard," says Allam. "I wasn’t used to seeing that kind of pain and suffering.”
Indeed, she frequently thought about quitting — but still, she kept going back, week after week. She ended up volunteering there for seven years, and over the course of her time there, she learned two very important things: One, she wanted to help people; and two, although she knew she didn’t want to work in the hospital system for the rest of her career, there was another way to accomplish that goal — through research. And with SiNON Therapeutics and her work developing remarkable new technology she calls the Carbon Dot, she’s been able to do just that.
Her path hasn’t been typical: She graduated from NC State with a double major in microbiology and biochemistry, but she doesn’t have a PhD, and she didn’t go to medical school. She does, however, hold an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business — and between that degree, her undergraduate studies, and more than eight years of hands-on research in nanomedicine, she’s uniquely positioned to run a biomedical company. And although people have continually told her throughout her life that she didn’t have what it takes to accomplish her goals, she’s disrupting the system in powerful ways — and her work could provide breakthroughs not only for treatment of neurological diseases, but in a number of other arenas, as well.
SiNON’s focus is the Carbon Dot, a nano-particle that functions as a delivery tool that can transport medicine and other treatments through the blood-brain barrier. Allam actually began the research that would become the Carbon Dot during her undergraduate studies. During her sophomore year at the NC State she wanted to study abroad — but in order for her parents to agree, her program had to satisfy a few conditions. “My dad, who is from India, put two conditions,” Allam says. “First of all, it has to be in India, since I hadn’t been since I was four; and the second condition was, I had to get into one of the IITs” — that is, a program that was part of the Indian Institute of Technology, a network of prestigious engineering schools spread out across the entire country. Allam describes them as “basically like the MIT and Harvards of India.”
The conditions were seemingly impossible — but Allam was accepted to a position in the chemistry department with Dr. Sarkar at IIT’s Kanpur campus. She spent most of her time in the lab, during which time she began developing what would become the Carbon Dot. Originally she was planning on using this research merely as a stepping stone to help get into medical school, but the work turned out to be so unique that Allam’s father, who has a degree in organic chemistry himself, encouraged her to apply for a patent. She was only 20 at the time — but in 2013, the patent was granted