What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Never give up. Be persistent in what you want to achieve, and believe in yourself. You can make it if I could, because there were a lot of challenges for me being an immigrant without access to a lot of opportunities.”
Imagine this: you work your whole life towards an ambitious dream and you finally get to live it. Only a month in, you suddenly realize that it was never your dream to begin with; all you want is to get out and start anew. But, everyone tells you to stick it through, and so you do that—for 8 whole years. This scenario, though difficult to believe, is exactly what happened to Dr. Samira Kiani, now an Associate Professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh. After only 1 month in the top medical school in Tehran, Iran, Samira knew that she didn’t want to be a doctor. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy for her to switch paths. “Getting into that medical school was such an achievement for a kid in Iran, that it was not easy to say bye, I don’t want to do this anymore,” she says.
Why, though, did she go through with such a commitment? Having been born into the final 8 years of the war between Iran and Iraq, Samira was surrounded by tension and stress that she longed to escape. As a child, she told her parents, who are both veterinarians, that she wanted to be an actor. However, she says, “growing up in a society where there are a lot of… hardships, my parents were terrified to hear their child wanted to be an actor… I was directed towards a more traditional pathway.” In Iran, at the end of high school, students take intensely challenging entrance exams. Samira scored so high on that exam that she got into the top medical school in her country at only 18 years old. “Giving that up would have required a lot of courage that I didn’t have at the time,” she says. “And I didn’t have the social support to do that.”
Despite the pressure she experienced to continue as a doctor, she still knew she wanted to figure out what she truly wanted. As soon as she finished 8 years of medical school in 2007, she went on a 2-year exploratory mission to figure out where her real passions lie. During that time, she considered working with the London College of Fashion, researched environmental psychology in Edinburgh, worked with medical humanities and theater groups in Rochester, NY, worked at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in Seattle, and discovered her love for film and art. “It was like a kid in a candy shop phenomenon,” she says, laughing. “I could do whatever I wanted.” Her change of paths didn’t come easily, though; she experienced pushback especially from her parents, who questioned her constantly. “I had to talk to them a lot throughout the years to ask them to trust me, and tell them this is what I want and this is what I like,” she says. “There was a lot of resistance.”
Nevertheless, she persisted. Her artistic endeavors were transformative for Samira. Even so, she knew that throughout these experiences, she was trained primarily as a doctor and a researcher. She says, “I grew up as a scientist with a scientific mentality. I couldn’t mold myself into a really traditional art space.” She found herself drawn back into science and was curious to know whether she would enjoy research as a career. She sent hundreds of emails to faculty looking for open positions. In one email, she proposed a project for a novel genetic tool that she had no idea how to build to Dr. Ron Weiss at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He loved the idea, but he didn’t have funding at the time. Undeterred, she kept emailing other professors at MIT. She found a small mechanical engineering lab and started working there, but after a short while, she realized that she felt “very isolated in that department” and decided to look again for a different lab. She eventually met Principal Investigator (PI) Dr. Rudolph Jaenisch, a famous stem cell biologist at the Whitehead Institute of MIT, in 2010, and decided that he was who she wanted to work with. “I won’t forget the speech I gave him,” she says. “I said, ‘give me an opportunity to work in your lab for a year, and I’ll prove to you that your investment in me will come back to you and that you were not wrong in hiring me.’” She got the job. There, she worked with a postdoctoral fellow who gave her a crash course in genetic engineering and who pushed her to be an excellent scientist.
“I said, ‘give me an opportunity to work in your lab for a year, and I’ll prove to you that your investment in me will come back to you and that you were not wrong in hiring me!'”
Her experiences in Dr. Jaenisch’s lab inspired her to apply for a PhD program at MIT, but she didn’t get in. With that blow, she was dismayed, but decided to pursue post-doctoral opportunities, since she still had an MD and research experience on her resume. She applied for and received a position at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in NYC. Unfortunately, at HHMI, she had a terrible experience with her PI. “I was the only female postdoc at the time,” she says, and that “the time I was there, he would skip interacting with me and just go to the other benches” to talk to the other postdocs. He rarely spoke to her. She decided she wasn’t getting the treatment she deserved, and left that lab.
Since she ended up leaving all of her previous labs after such short periods of time, people were starting to question her and imply that there was something wrong with her. She went back to sending hundreds of emails, but this time, nobody was responding. Doubt began to creep in. “I thought, maybe I made the wrong choice,” she says. Dispirited, she started to give up and to study for her board examinations and apply for residency again. Right before taking it, though, Dr. Ron Weiss, who previously didn’t have funding for her project, reached out and asked her to join her lab as a postdoc–this time with pay. She dropped everything and went to Dr. Weiss’s lab to work in the field of synthetic biology, an area of research that allows for creation of new biological tools like gene editing. She thought, “this is my last and only chance, I’m not going to screw it up.”
“When I found that the synthetic biology field was a combination of art and design… I felt that that’s where I should go and that’s where my career has led me to. It’s a combination of my desire to create something, and it’s a piece of art. A poem and a genetic circuit are in the same category for me.”
Samira credits Dr. Weiss as one of her most important mentors throughout her career. She says, “Ron was excited about his science and to know what I was doing as his Postdoc. This allowed me to get excited about what I was doing, too.” To her, he models what she wishes to be: accepting and supportive, qualities she had not experienced until that point. With Dr. Weiss’s support, Samira worked extremely hard in his lab and published 3 Nature Methods papers in 3 years, an amazing feat in academia. Her productivity gave her an edge in a competitive job market, and she ended up as a professor at Arizona State University in 2016 and later an Associate Professor at University of Pittsburgh in 2020 to lead a research team on synthetic biology. “When I found that the synthetic biology field was a combination of art and design… I felt that that’s where I should go and that’s where my career has led me to,” she says. “It’s a combination of my desire to create something, and it’s a piece of art. A poem and a genetic circuit are in the same category for me.”
Now as the head of her own lab, she focuses on improving the use of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology in humans. CRISPR has the potential to revolutionize the way we treat genetic disorders; however, the biggest problem with bringing it into the clinic is immunogenicity, or the body’s negative immune response to a foreign object, such as a Cas9 protein, entering the body. The body can literally begin to fight itself and the patient can die from a therapy that was supposed to help them. In her research, Samira wants to figure out how to avoid this. In the long-run, her goal is to “develop gene therapy drugs that can get into clinical trials and get into patients faster and safer.” She has even gone so far as to co-found her own company called GenexGen Inc., for which she is a founding chief Executive officer (CEO), to ensure her findings get commercialized and make it to patients as quickly as possible. Part of her motivation for starting a company was watching her father go through and pass away from pancreatic cancer; he never had access to gene therapies. “I want to give back to society somehow with that in my mind, to see the suffering of a patient,” she says. “I always say that patients do not have enough time for us to waste our time.”
While Samira works on cutting-edge science in her lab, her artistic inclinations were not forgotten. She finds creative ways to meld art and science in her career, and is currently working as a producer for the movie The Human Game. The film is a documentary that follows leaders of genomic science to tell the story of CRISPR gene editing technologies. It hinges on the shocking creation of Chinese “designer babies” in late 2018, also known as the He Jiankui affair, that led to the researcher being sentenced to 3 years in jail in 2019. The trailer is set to heart-quickening background music reminiscent of Inception to make viewers feel uneasy, as they should about the dangerous potential of gene editing. Her goal is to spur ethical conversations about how to best use these innovative technologies, and how not to use them. It is set to be released later this year at film festivals like Sundance.
Samira also directs a project similar to our beloved Scientist on the Subway blog: Tomorrow.Life, a collaborative film website that features researchers from diverse backgrounds, their struggles, and their advice to aspiring scientists. Her combined science outreach efforts have gained her recognition, as she won a fellowship for the highly prestigious AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement in 2019. Despite all that Samira does, she still somehow finds time to explore her surrounding area, go hiking with her 6-year-old pup named Hero, and visit her sister’s children. To her, balancing work and life are as crucial to success as passion for the work itself.
When looking back at her life, Samira knows she’s had a wealth of experiences, but acknowledges that she often felt lost and discouraged. Above all, though, she says that she has only focused on doing what she wants, and that the motivation came from within her. Going from a medical school in Iran to a professorship in Pittsburgh who owns a company and produces movies is quite a jump. “I knew that whatever I did I wanted to be good at it… [and that] if I’m not passionate about something, I wouldn’t put 100% into that thing,” she says. “And you can’t be successful if you don’t put 100% into something.” Samira is emblematic of the type of persistent mold-breaking that is required to escape environments that attempt to control and define you. She says of her trajectory, “sometimes you go through some life event and you endure hardship, either mental or physical, and you think at that moment that it is a horrible thing that happened that you wasted your life. But 20 years down the road, you look back and say, wow that experience made me who I am. That experience made me a unique person.”
“But 20 years down the road, you look back and say, wow that experience made me who I am. That experience made me a unique person.”
Samira Kiani, MD, is a Professor of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh. Faculty profile
Further Links and Reading:
- Samira recently published “Science Sisterhood” on Tomorrow.Life; this series highlights a diverse group of women scientists talking about their experiences in science. Some themes include: imposter syndrome, being an immigrant, or identifying as LGBTQIA+.
- More information about the impact of Samira’s start-up company, SafeGen Therapeutics, can be found here.
- Follow the progress of The Human Game film on Twitter, set to be released this fall in film festivals.
by Josephine McGowan