This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
#LINO18 young scientist Forough Khadem, 36, from Iran, is a Business Development (BD) Specialist at Mitacs and the Western Canadian Innovation Offices (WCIO) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Her PhD research contributed to new scientific knowledge on understanding the host-pathogen interaction during visceral leishmaniasis (a deadly parasitic disease) by focusing on Leishmania donovani as the pathogen and phosphoinositide 3 kinase (PI3K) pathway as the host factor in murine model of the disease. She successfully identified a novel vaccine/drug candidate against leishmaniasis. Enjoy the interview with Forough and get inspired!
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
My parents definitely sparked my curiosity towards science and encouraged me to think outside the box by developing reasoning and inquisitiveness about the world around me and its mysteries in my childhood. While growing up in Iran and New Zealand, I observed how relentlessly my dad worked/studied toward his higher education in science. I also saw how my mum was a major support in this process and she always encouraged me to be passionate about science due to its potential to improve lives and humanity. This was what inspired me to pursue a career in science and medicine. As I got older and wiser I realised that being involved in science and helping to develop innovative ideas is very important as it helps me to transcend across cultural, geopolitical and religious differences and barriers. This has been the driving force that motivates me to learn and study as much as I can and be a visionary leader and be passionate to make a difference in the community worldwide by contributing my time towards research and partnership building.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I don’t have one single cool project that stands out, each project that I did in my BSc, MSc, PhD or the projects that I support in my current position all have their own different exclusivity.
For example, part of my BSc research studies contributed to the production of the BARVAR-2 (a Phosphate Bio-fertilizer), which is now being used by farmers in Iran and other countries and has been shown to significantly increase crop productivity. The Interdisciplinary research I performed in my MSc is still being evaluated by the company it was funded by, to see if it is viable to be commercialised as a plant-based medicinal agent for tuberculosis therapy. My PhD research provided outstanding novel understandings into the mechanisms involved in the development and regulation of immunity in visceral leishmaniasis. The data obtained also introduced a drug target in the form of immunotherapy for both visceral and cutaneous leishmaniasis. In my current role, I have helped (and continue to) match private company and non-profit organisation dollars to build collaborative research projects with the academic sector that are so far valued at $2,085,000 and $5,000,000 for Mitacs and WCIO funded projects.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
I would like to rephrase this question as I hardly ever feel pride in what I do, but I aspire to be inspiring to others and be so humble and approachable to my peers and the individuals that I work with, so that they find it seamless to approach me in any instance. I should add that whenever a task is very demanding or time-consuming or when I reach a milestone in my career, I feel very happy.
For example, during the first year of my PhD degree, I attended a lecture at Canadian Student Health Research Forum (CSHRF), given by a Postdoc who had attended a Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and was talking about the once-in-a life time experience he had. Right then, I said to myself: “I want to be that person!” Even though I dealt with two challenges, adopting to the new field of research (Plant Science to Immunology), and combating a health issue, they did not stop me from being successful to the fullest and finally winning the competition to honourably being nominated to attend the Lindau Meeting. I have been very ecstatic ever since I found out that I have been selected to attend both the Lindau Meeting and the Baden-Württemberg International post conference programme. I will cherish the experience of connecting with the Nobel Laureates and other young scientists and cherishing every day of these meetings forever.
What is a “day in the life” of Forough like?
After graduating from PhD in Immunology, I became a Business Development Specialist at Mitacs, a Not for Profit organisation that supports research-based innovation by working with its partners in industry, academia and government, and WCIO, Western Canadian Innovation Offices, where Technology Transfer Offices in Western Canadian Secondary Institutes have virtually joined, to improve engagement between industry and academia to address industry-driven innovation needs. In this role, I engage with Manitoba’s vibrant innovative research, technology and start-up community to promote collaborative research between academia and industries. I do not remember having a boring day or having to do similar things for two days in a row, because there’s always something new to learn or do or some new place to go to. I Usually have long working days starting at 9 am with meetings with past or new clients in industries, academic supervisors, faculty or department heads and deans and students or trainees usually ending by 5 or 6 pm, but internal/external emails are always there until 10 or 11 pm! I enjoy the life style, as I can arrange my meetings of the day according to my needs of that day. Due to my efforts in building a bridge between industry and academia research collaborations in Manitoba and Western Canadian ecosystems, I have been selected as a successful Manitoba newcomer, leader, innovator and trailblazer by CBC’s #iamMB for Canada’s 150th Birthday. As I don’t get the time to eat lunch with my colleagues (or department members as I used to during my PhD program), I try to arrange a dinner with my friends/colleagues in a local restaurant once a week or every two weeks and I have had a chance to try almost all the good places in town (we even have a few favourite ones).
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I believe that everyone has to work hard to build a unique skill set that would make them stand out from the crowed if they want to be successful in life and if they deeply want to give back to their community. This is extremely important to me as I have received free higher education to the fullest quality in a public and free system in Iran and New Zealand, and I have used a lot of scholarships for my education in Canada. During the past years I have built a strong diverse scientific background in plant biology, immunology and infectious diseases, robust entrepreneurial spirit, business development and leadership skills, partnership building aptitude and ability to think outside the box and try new things. I hope that this expertise will help me develop creative ideas and implement continuous improvements to the overall growth and success of any organisation (academic, not for profit or industry) that I work in. I also hope that I can maintain my multicultural professional and social networks to start national and international collaborations in bigger capacities. As a lifelong teacher, I would also like to continue to create a challenging but positive learning atmosphere that intellectually stimulates students, embraces the evolution of learning techniques and bridges students from disadvantaged backgrounds with educational opportunities that expose them to scientific career paths.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
Although I have had a very busy research life, I have still managed to volunteer in many industry and academia associations, research networks, NGOs and non-profit organisations, organised many national and international workshops, conferences and meetings, volunteered for leadership, teaching and departmental and community outreach programmes to develop interest in youth and underprivileged kids towards science. After an intense day in the lab, nothing calms me down more than either cooking in massive amounts or taking a drive to my favourite places in the city. Therefore, my friends and family have definitely benefited from my cooking and spontaneous offers of going places! I also like to read, paint, watch news, HGTV or Netflix.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
As a young woman researcher living in Canada, I have been passionate about inspiring, empowering and mentoring other scientists in general and female individuals specifically. I believe sharing my experiences through teaching and mentoring and complimenting other young scientists will influence their lives and career path in a very positive way.
I believe that where there is a will, there is a way! Therefore, although dreaming of a career in science is something that comes with its challenges, hardships, long hours, low salaries, sometimes dealing with choosing between your personal life and professional life (which is very unfortunate in this day and age!), one should never fear anything and always enjoy the unearthing that the journey brings and the success and happiness that comes after achieving one’s goals and milestones in life.
I also would mention: believe that nothing is impossible! Be yourself and never live the life or choose the career that others want you to live or choose! This is how you can become unique, forward looking and discover novel findings.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
The field of physiology and medicine is tremendously comprehensive; hence, it is tough to determine a single breakthrough predicted in it in the coming years. However, I do believe that scientists and researchers in academic institutes and industries internationally need to work and collaborate more closely together in order to bridge the gaps and enhance advanced findings in these fields specifically in personalised and computational predictive medicine. building a bridge between industry and academia will reduce costs in highly advanced research and result in more dynamic and accurate data sets, outcomes and possibly future personalised therapies or preventative measures.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
Internationally, there is a very interesting situation of gender distribution in various levels of education in STEM. With many female students being admitted to different undergraduate or graduate programmes but not so many women having academic or executive roles in research or industries such as being Professors, Heads of Departments/Faculties, Chairs, Vice Presidents, Presidents, CEO’s and etc.
I believe that in the STEM fields, we need great minds of all genders. There should be no classification, and everyone should be equal. It is a disappointment that in this modern world we are still concerned about how to increase the number of female scientists, professors and employees, but as long as unequal pay and preference of men over women in work environments still exists we are going to have to find ways to close the gap between gender inequality in different organisations. To do so maybe the following options could be beneficial:
- Create a platform to help men and other family members realise that their female partners or colleagues do not have to work full time at their jobs and also manage all their personal family life on their own. It is Ok, to ask a partner or family member to help with a sick child and pick up and drop offs from school or from extracurricular activities!
- Help women have a more efficient work-life balance by providing appropriate programmes. Adequate high capacity and high-quality day cares at work places that are open late could be an advantage.
- Taking the full time dedicated to maternity leave is fine and it does not mean that women will have to come back to no job position or with less knowledge than before.
- Women should start having each other’s backs instead of being each other’s enemies. If each successful woman becomes another colleague’s mentor or trusted advisor, this will help build trust and success for both parties.
- Providing exclusive government or private research funding, scholarships or fellowships for femal scientists in underdeveloped, developing or developed countries based on their international and industry collaborations could increase their success rate for getting funded.
- Academic, government and industry positions envisioned only for women, to which other applicants cannot apply to, would be a good way to secure positions for women at workplaces.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
While living in New Zealand as a child, I learned English as a second language, got involved in competitive sports, arts and music, developed computer and leadership skills and learned how to work successfully in collaborative environments. When I got back to Iran in my teenage years, my urge to give back to my home country and help engendered me to voluntarily start teaching English, computer and music to my classmates and others. Since many contemporary issues are written in English, I believed that teaching women to read and write in English and connect to the world via the internet would liberate their minds and open new frontiers for them.
After passing the Konkoor entrance exam on the second attempt (as I was changing fields from mathematics to biology) and successfully ranking 800, I was accepted for the BSc. degree in Plant Biology at the University of Tehran. During my BSc period (2000-2004), I became familiar with various theoretical and practical aspects of basic and plant biology, but I did not limit myself only to these fields, which were my primary area of research. Instead, I tried to explore other fields and thus I voluntarily became an active member of the Genetic and Biotechnology Societies of Iran. I voluntarily established and maintained (as admin) the Iranian Geneticists and Biotechnologists Database (IGBD). I recruited over 3000 Iranian Genetic, Biotechnology and Medical Science researchers to be participants of the IGBD which contained information on the researcher’s themselves and their research interests. I also played significant leadership roles as one of the executive committee members organising national and international conferences. I gained a lot of leadership skills and made scientific connections with other researchers. My BSc thesis project was a collaborative venture between Plant Physiology and Microbiology Laboratories of University of Tehran and a private company that was owned by the chairperson of the Genetic Society of Iran. Part of my research studies contributed to the production of the Green Biotech’s BARVAR-2 Phosphate Biofertilizer, which is now being used by farmers in Iran and other countries and has significantly increased crop productivity.
To enter the next level of my higher education, I passed another entrance exam after the second attempt, successfully gained rank 39, and was qualified for MSc in Plant Biology at the Tarbiat Modares University (2005-2008). My MSc research focused on the comparative study of the extracted alkaloids of two local plant medicinal species and their effects on the growth and viability of Mycobacterium bovis BCG. This was a collaborative work between Tarbiat Modares University and Pasteur Institutes of Iran and Paris. The research component was funded by Rastadaroo Co, a biotech, Immunology and pharmaceutical start-up company that was owned by one of my supervisors. I also mainly became involved in some immunology projects, through one of my four supervisors, Dr. M. Abolhassani – an immunologist at Pasteur Institute of Iran & Institut Pasteur (Paris, France) and the owner of Rastadaroo, and also Professor S. Rafati – Head of Molecular Immunology and Vaccine Research Laboratory-Pasteur Institute of Iran.
During my MSc, I was employed by Rastadaroo as Sales Representative. After the completion of my Masters, I got promoted to Sales Manager and Scientific Workshops, IT & Publication Director (2005–2009). I was able to increase sales, design and publish all the marketing tools, establish and build partnerships with other Iranian companies, research institutes and foreign companies and organise and lecture in scientific workshops. I learned how to establish, run and develop a company from A to Z and also gained a lot of leadership and management skills in the field of business and scientific research. I also helped increase the employees from three individuals (myself, CEO and the founder) to 10 individuals before kindly declining the CEO position offered to me in order to pursue my post-secondary education in Canada.
I first met Professor Jude Uzonna in an International workshop in Iran (2008) as his translator and a member of the workshop executive committee. During our farewells, he mentioned that I can call him anytime, if I ever wanted to study Immunology at University of Manitoba and so I did call him! That is how Dr. Uzonna enabled me to change the path of my higher education and opened new frontiers in my scientific career by helping me to pursue my PhD degree in Immunology. My PhD training at the University of Manitoba (2010-2016), allowed me to enhance my scientific knowledge in the field of Immunology and infectious diseases. My PhD research was targeted at studying the host-pathogen interaction during visceral leishmaniasis (a deadly parasitic disease). Data from my research showed that mice with inactivating knock-in mutation in the p110δ isoform of PI3K signalling pathway are hyper-resistant to Leishmania infection. I also addressed the role of Hepatic Stellate Cells and their impact on regulatory T cell induction/expansion in the pathogenesis/immunity to visceral leishmaniasis for the first time. I then demonstrated that treatment of Leishmania-infected mice with a pharmacological inhibitor of p110δ (CAL-101) confers protection against experimental visceral and cutaneous leishmaniasis. My PhD research suggested that targeting the PI3K pathway may have important and direct implications for immunotherapy of leishmaniasis.
I presented my work at four invited lecturs, 15 poster presentations, three oral presentations and eight scientific publications. As a result, I received one studentship award (the only award I could apply for as an international student at the time), two tuition scholarships, one course/workshop registration bursary, one award for excellence in graduate research (Apotex Fermentation Inc. Major Award for Molecular Biology Research from Collage Committee for Graduate Studies), 11 travel awards and 10 poster awards. I was also selected as a finalist in the 3-Minute Thesis Competition.
During my PhD programme, I was actively involved in school politics as University of Manitoba health Sciences Graduate Students’ Association (HSGSA)-Vice President Academics and Department of Immunology-Student Deputy Representative. I also volunteered for leadership and teaching roles in departmental and community outreach programmes. As a result, I was nominated as the CBC’s 40 under 40 successful youth leaders, which celebrates Manitoba’s new generation of leaders, builders and change-makers under the age of 40.
It is worth mentioning that I also tackled a health issue during my PhD programme and with the support of my supervisor, lab members, close friends and family, I was able to overcome the hard times and learn how to deal with the situation. This lead me to think outside the box for my future career path after the PhD and not take the usual post-doctoral path. It got me thinking that with the entrepreneurial spirit in me and with all the business experience I had gained in the past, and with my desire to bridge academia to industry via supporting collaborative research between the two organisations, joining organisations such as Mitacs and Western Canadian Innovation Offices (WCIO) would be a great fit for me.
Who are your role models?
Many grand people in science and non-scientific fields have influenced me in my day to day journey and they are in different areas of life. There are many women and men who I have admired for their courage, skill set and dedication to make this world a better place to live and work and to bring EQUITY among all in the world. I have gained many valuable experiences from my father (Dr. A. Khadem), my BSc. (Dr. S. Zare and Dr. M. Malboobi), MSc. (Dr. H. Zare Maivan, Dr. M. Abolhassani, Dr. M. Sharifi and Dr. M. Salimi,) and PhD mentors (Dr. J. Uzonna, Dr. E. Eftekharpour, Dr. N. Mookherjee and Dr. A Marshall), community influencers (Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres), friends and family and my social, academic and industry networks (Dr. S. Rafati, Mr. B. YazdanPanah, Dr. K. HayGlass, Dr. D. Lanoway, Dr. L. Saward, Dr. J. E. Ghia, late Dr. R. Moqbel, Dr. A Soussi Gounni, Dr. P Nickerson and Dr. E. Kroeger, Dr. A. Halayko, Dr. K. Fowke). I have treasured these unique opportunities to enhance my scientific, professional, marketing and management skills.