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Teaming up for better health

New ASU professors met in lab, fell in love.
January 14, 2016

ASU engineering faculty couple study biology at cellular level to find better cures

Editor's note: This is part of a series highlighting new faculty members at Arizona State University. Find a complete listing of new 2015-2016 faculty here.

Just over one-quarter of married people with doctorates had a spouse working in science or engineering, according to a 2010 survey by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The proportion of hires in science that went to couples rose from 3 percent in the 1970s to 13 percent in the 2000s, according to a 2008 Stanford University survey of around 9,000 U.S. researchers.

Samira Kiani and Mohammad Ebrahimkhani are two of Arizona State University’s 2015-2016 class of new faculty. They are both assistant professors in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering in the Ira A Fulton Schools of Engineering. They both study biology at the cellular level. And they both fall into the above trends.

They married 10 years ago, and they’d both rather be in the lab than anywhere else.

They met in a student research center when they were each earning their MDs at the prestigious Tehran (Iran) University of Medical Sciences.

“We were working on a project, and we started to know each other at the same time we were doing science,” Ebrahimkhani said.

Working together has always been an advantage, Kiani said.

“We started working together since the days we were at med school and planned our pathway such that the works complement each other,” she said. “In general, I can confidently say that many times working together created a positive effect in our careers.”

They came to ASU from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they landed after stints at institutions in London; Rochester, New York; and Seattle.

Ebrahimkhani’s research focuses on understanding the principles of tissue repair and organ regeneration. He combines synthetic biology and human stem cells to engineer novel multicellular systems and personalized human tissue models.

He studies the liver because it’s an organ with unique regenerative properties. If we understand how it works and what stops it from regenerating, he said, that knowledge can be applied to other organs, leading to much more effective cures in the future.

Kiani’s focus is on developing next-generation gene therapies. She works on new biological systems that can behave differently and produce different behaviors for medical therapies or different types of technologies needed for human health and human physiology. Her program of research will be for developing tools to fight pancreatic cancer.

As postdoctoral researchers at MIT, they combined the disciplines of biology and engineering to tackle questions from a different angle. In the end, ASU’s transdisciplinary approach to knowledge attracted them to Arizona.

“We could find this synergy very uniquely here,” Ebrahimkhani said.

Both will teach as well as conduct research at ASU.

Kiani will work closely in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen). The Valley’s growing biotech industry was a draw for her. “It’s very attractive,” she said.

The couple also had a warm welcome when they visited the Tempe campus and interviewed.

“We found the faculty and department here very friendly,” Kiani said.

Finding ambitious, motivated students among ASU’s enormous student population to work with them was another attraction.

“The student body was also something that we were thinking about,” Ebrahimkhani said.

They moved to Scottsdale in November to find a place to live and get settled. Ebrahimkhani immediately began writing for grants. They sampled the Persian Room restaurant in Scottsdale. (“Much better than Boston,” Ebrahimkhani said.)

He paints, so he is looking forward to exploring Scottsdale galleries. Kiani is looking forward to missing New England winters. “Last winter was something else,” she said.

Most of all, they are looking forward to work.

“Being scientists, our life is our job, so we spend most of our time in the lab,” Kiani said.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Preaching the politics of food and nutrition

You really need to get involved in the political process of food.
USDA Under Secretary urges ASU students to consider the politics of food.
January 14, 2016

USDA Under Secretary Katie Wilson stops at ASU to talk about nutritional guidelines and food access

Few can fire up a crowd quite like Dr. Katie Wilson when it comes to talking people into eating their fruits and vegetables.

It may not sound like a sexy job, but it’s hers. And she does it well.

As the USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services under President Barack Obama, Wilson (pictured above, right) is responsible for improving the health and well-being of Americans by developing and promoting science-based dietary guidance and administering the USDA’s 15 nutrition assistance programs.

Prior to joining USDA, Wilson spent 23 years as a school nutrition director in several Wisconsin public school districts, served five years as the executive director for the National Food Service Management Institute, and was an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.

On Thursday, Wilson visited with more than 50 students, faculty and researchers in ASU’s College of Health Solutions on the Downtown Phoenix campus to discuss how universities and educators helped shape the recently released USDA Dietary Guidelines — which are developed every five years.  

“School nutrition programs should be educational labs for children, and all of you need to be advocates for them,” Wilson said. “I encourage you all to get involved in the process because we need to hear your voice and we need your research and expertise.”

Wilson, who started her appointment on May 3, 2015, spoke to ASU Now about her surprise visit to ASU, how national nutritional policy is created and the role and function of the USDA.

Question: Your call to action for future teachers and researchers to get involved in the political process is interesting. Why is it so important for nutritional guidelines?

Answer: Writing regulation at the regulatory level means we’re only as good as what the scientists and researchers know and tell us. The field of nutrition in particular is evolving. We really don’t know a whole lot because it keeps changing, and that’s because the research keeps changing. We haven’t been dealing with nutrition as long as we have, specifically, with other kinds of issues. It’s also not a concrete issue. It’s very passionate, it’s very personal, it changes upon your demographic and age group, what your cultural preferences and experiences are. I think that if we can get people involved in the American process of writing these things, then we’re much further ahead.

Q: There are many issues behind food — social, economical, political — that go behind the making of policy. Is it the hardest aspect of your job, with so many voices and factors weighing in on the process?

A: That’s what makes it so difficult to deal with in this arena. It’s not cut and dry. It’s neither this nor that. Again, I think that’s why we have to go back to the American public and say, “That works. That doesn’t work.” What are we seeing? What are the trends? Then we have to listen to the scientists and how they have advanced nutrition to see how it reacts with the body and the whole medical aspect of it. We’ve made a lot of advances in the last 10 years, so we know a little more.

Q: There are differing opinions about funding free-meal programs. What are your thoughts on the issue?

A: I really and truly believe that anyone of us could fall on hardship tomorrow. We can’t get people back into the mainstream if they’re hungry. It just can’t be. We know that children don’t learn well if they’re hungry. The same with adults. You can’t function if you’re hungry and if you’re a single parent doing multiple jobs or managing children from multiple schools or having to figure out public transportation to get to your destination or job. If you’re hungry on top of all of that, there’s no way to figure it out. So how do we get people back on their feet and into the mainstream if they’re hungry? … We have the ability to feed everybody in this country and so we just have to figure out a way to make sure they get it.

Q: Most of your programs seem to be geared toward not only feeding children but also educating them about nutrition. We constantly hear about how America has become more obese as a nation, so when will we see that shift in behavior?

A: We have already started to see changes in schools regarding nutrition. Some of it is anecdotal; some of it is more research-based. There’s a brand-new article that just published in the American Medical Journal of Pediatrics. It shows that there’s a big difference in what they’re choosing and consuming. And they’re not being forced to. It’s a choice. We are seeing a shift. We’re seeing a difference because industry is saying, “Look, these healthy products are so popular that we’re going to put them in the commercial market.” We’re beginning to see a shift in the general population because they are asking for more information on food labels. They’re interested. The fact that we got tens of thousands of people giving their input and commenting on the USDA Dietary Guidelines for 2015 says people are paying attention. I believe people are beginning to relate good nutrition to a healthy lifestyle and longevity. We are beginning to see those changes in children, even though it takes time.

Q: It’s obvious you are passionate about what you do and teach.

A: I am. Every day I go home I know I’ve fought some battle somewhere that gave some kid access to food … and I’m OK with that.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now