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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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Trash talking at the wrestling meet

Sun Devils wrestling meet to highlight ASU's Zero Waste initiative.
January 15, 2016

Athletics event will use power of the fans to drive Zero Waste initiative

Wrestling is a minimalist sport, with no elaborate uniforms or equipment.

And the fans at Friday night's Sun Devils wrestling meetThe Sun Devils will host Iowa State at 8 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena. will be asked to keep that sentiment in mind by keeping their trash to a minimum.

Arizona State University’s Zero Waste Initiative is partnering with the Sun Devils Athletic Department on a marketing campaign aimed at fans. Signs will remind them to “think before you throw” and volunteers will staff the bins for people who really aren’t sure where to toss that plastic fork.

Lucas Mariacher, program manager for Zero Waste at ASU and an alumnus of the wrestling team, said the meet is a big event and the partnership will raise the profile of both organizations.

Zero Waste has been working for years behind the scenes to cut ASU’s landfill stream two ways, according to Alana Levine, assistant director for Zero Waste. Aversion means the institution tries to produce less waste by buying items that can be reused, recycled or composted. Diversion means actually recycling or composting everything that can be.

The process is a loop, Levine said.

“We look at the life cycle of materials. If we’re going to be recycling our paper, we have to make sure we are buying back recycled paper so we have closed that economic loop,” she said.

One major way that trash is reduced at athletic events is by working with the concessionaire, Sodexo.

“A few years ago we really analyzed the packaging around the hot dog you’re going to buy,” Levine said. “Can they serve chips in a tray that’s recyclable instead of a bag that’s not recyclable?”

She said the Athletics Department has been eager to participate. “We stand side by side with Athletics; we’re not pulling them along,” she said.

Sparky visited the ASU staff barbeque in December, where waste diversion was more than 99 percent.

The initiative has been very successful. Mariacher said that waste is separated and weighed after events. More than 99 percent of the waste produced at the ASU staff barbeque in December was diverted, he said. The record for Wells Fargo Arena was a men’s basketball game last year in which 90 percent of the trash was diverted.

But now the fans are being invited to do their part.

“One of the shifts in our thinking in how we’re approaching Zero Waste is we really want the individual to be activated,” Levine said.

Each ASU team will feature the Zero Waste marketing campaign at one of its signature events this semester. Friday is the wrestling team’s “MMA Night,” featuring wrestling alumni who now participate in the Ultimate Fighting Championship competition.

“Our number one goal is that the behavior transfers to other venues and even to the fans’ personal lives,” Mariacher said. “Maybe you shouldn’t throw away all those recyclable things.”

The other Zero Waste promotional events this spring will be: women’s basketball, 7 p.m. Jan. 22 vs. the University of Arizona; gymnastics, 7 p.m. Feb. 22 vs. the University of Arizona; wrestling PAC-12 championship, 6 p.m. Feb. 27; men’s basketball, 6:30 p.m. March 5 vs. California; baseball, 7 p.m. April 12 vs. the University of Arizona; and softball, 7 p.m. April 23 vs. Oregon.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now