Researcher of ME/CFS at Stanford Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine.
My name is Fereshteh Jahanbani and I am from Iran.
I grew up in a small town in north part of Iran near the Caspian Sea. It’s a beautiful place, a lot of trees, herbs as much as you can imagine, and a lot of animals. I would always be playing in the garden and looking for new plants, new species. I was fascinated by biology.
I was accepted in one of the best universities in Iran, Tehran University. I got my pharmacy degree from there in 2004. At the beginning during my pharmacy school, I was very fascinated by immunology and little by little, I found myself even more interested in pharmacology. So I applied for a PhD in pharmacology. During the PhD, I was a very hard worker. There were many herbs that had been used for many centuries in Middle East for treating cancer. I was trying to find the active ingredient in this chemical in these remedies and try them in cell culture and it was interesting for me how cells would respond to these different ingredients. Finding the actual ingredient was such a joy.
Unfortunately, we were on sanctions so it would really be hard to complete my projects. Some thing that could happen here in USA in three months, for us in Iran, it would take forever. I had to start from making everything myself, from antibodies, everything. I began to understand that if I want to learn more about human biology, this very complicated, sophisticated system, I would have to apply for post-doctoral degree somewhere in other countries that are not on sanctions.
I applied for a position in USA. Before I finished my PhD, I got H1B visa. Then when I finished my PhD, I left everything behind; having a pharmacy of my own, being an assistant professor, everything, and I pursued another dream of learning more about human biology and use it for what we were taught in the pharmacology program as precision personalized medicine.
I found this very nice position at Stanford with Mike Snyder. He is the head of the department of genetics. In his lab, I had the opportunity to learn a lot about precision medicine, personalized medicine, and really try to understand each person as a unique individual, looking at who they are, their genetic structure, their background, their culture, their diet, everything. We have all this technology; we call them Multiomics Technology that you look at all the different molecular landscape of each person and then re-construct them together and try to understand why this person is having a particular disease and try to understand why some people respond to some chemicals very differently.
In 2012 when I joined the Genome Lab at Stanford we started studying rare diseases using genetics and environmental factors that contribute to a condition. I got involved with studying Connective Tissue Disorders (EDS) and that led me to studying Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). Again, the more I studied these diseases, I could see that there are other conditions that are very similar to CFS, like Post Lyme syndrome and PANS, Pediatric Acute Onset of Neurological Disorders. Today, what I have been doing with the support of a lot of people is building up a bio-bank of these four overlapping conditions and see if there is a common biomarker that can explain the causality of these diseases.
It was very difficult getting permission to come study in the States. When I applied for this H1B visa, I got the yellow response, which means that I have the primary yes but I had to wait in Iran for two and a half years to go through the security name check.
I did not want to leave Iran; I got a free education at one of the best universities in Iran. During my PhD program specifically, it dawned on me that I have experienced these sanctions my entire life. We grew up having empty fridge, people waiting long line for getting tiny bit of the oil for cooking or maybe a few eggs here and there. I noticed that our science was, unfortunately, affected also to a great degree. I had to make all my antibodies myself. I would read the literature and the papers and I could see that people are doing other type of research, more sophisticated, they are using really cutting edge technologies that we really didn’t have access to any of them.
I was lucky enough to be trained by many scientists who got their training from outside of Iran, from western countries and they brought their expertise and their dedication back to Iranian young people. But it was very sad to see that their hope was affected by the sanctions also. They were wonderful researchers but they simply were limited by these sanctions.
One could assume that politics is politics and politics shouldn’t affect sports, shouldn’t affect human lives and civilian’s lives and science. But unfortunately, in the real world, sanctions that one country puts on another country might not change the mentality of the leaders of that country, but definitely affects the lives of every individual who lives in that country, their capability of being a better person. It certainly affected our ability to do basic science to discover ways to heal people. The sanctions make it very difficult for people who are ill to get the medications they need.
My son is 7 years old and he’s very aware of what’s going on. When he started going to kindergarten he would keep asking me, “Mommy, they keep talking about Iran in the news. Are they really going to bomb grandpa’s house? Are we fighting with Iran?”
And now he sees that there are more issues with immigrants and people who don’t have legal documents they might be deported back to their country of origin and he still doesn’t understand the definition of citizen versus non-citizen and he has been always wondering if this going to affect me as his mother. Two years ago, he almost burst into tears that, “Mommy, I don’t want you get separated from me.” I assured him this doesn’t happen to mommy. But then as a sensitive child, he can see that this is affecting many children.
Last year when he went to Iran, he really asked me if there’s a way for his grandpa to visit him here so they could go fishing together, because this is what they do in Iran. It was very sad for me to tell him that there’s no hope that grandpa ever can come here and stay with you and you guys go fishing. The reality of our life here is that we work very hard, and every one or two years we might be able to visit grandpa.
Just yesterday, he was looking at Facebook and he saw that everybody was upset about children in immigration camps that don’t have even access to toothbrush. He just saw the headline and he couldn’t stop putting his comment there like, “This is mean. This is cruel. This is very sad. I’m very angry.” And he posted a lot of emojis of anger, crying, sadness and a big emoji of a baby crying. It’s very frustrating to see that kids can understand this, but adults in those centers can’t understand the cruelty of their actions. This is just a basic human right. These immigrants are not coming here to steal our job. Each of them has a hope and they are fleeing their country because their country is not a safe place. What would we do as parents if we have young children?