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 in Mazandran province, which is located along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea and in the adjacent Central Alborz mountain range. Being surrounded by magical Alborz mountain and Caspian Sea, Mazandaran’s nature is magically beautiful, offering one of the most diverse natural landscape of plains, prairies, forests and rainforest stretching from the sandy beaches of the Caspian Sea to the rugged and snowcapped Alborz sierra, including Mount Damavand, one of the highest peaks and volcanoes in Asia. The ancient Hyrcanian Forests World Heritage property, with a history dating back 25 – 50 million years ago and habitat for over 180 species of birds and 58 mammals including the iconic Persian Leopard is also in Mazanadran. Human habitation in the area dates back at least 75,000 years and the area has been urbanized for more than 5,000 years.
Growing up in this heavenly place, I found myself mesmerized by the beauty of Mother Nature and fascinated by the diversity of nature and biological systems. I would always be playing in nature and looking for new species of plants, insect, small animals and birds. I grew up admiring the complexity and also simplicity of life and nature’s survival mechanism. Even though our small town only had one high school for girls, I was fortunate enough to get accepted into the best Pharmacy program in Tehran University, one of the best universities in Iran. I got my PharmD degree from TUMS in 1998. During the course of PharmD, organic chemistry, physiology, immunology, and most of all, pharmacology was among my most favorite subjects. So I applied for a PhD program in pharmacology. My PharmD and PhD research were mostly focused on using animal models and cell cultures for small molecule discoveries with anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-cancer activities. This would involve in reading through old textbooks and search for ancient herbal remedies used for centuries by Iranians to treat their diseases and combine the ancestral knowledge with modern science and technology to find the active ingredients. These studies would take me back to my most favorite childhood activities, wondering in nature and looking for new species of medical plants. Finding the actual ingredient was such a joy. I was so lucky to have the best mentors, one could have ever wish for. Amazing talented caring mentors who taught me and my classmates to be the best of ourselves and never be scared or fear that anything is impossible!
Unfortunately, as long as I remember, we have been on sanctions, which not only affect our daily lives, but also our research, health and quality of lives. Due to sanction, studies that could be done here in USA in three months, could take 3 years or longer to be done and sometimes undoable. We had to start from scratch, make what we needed including most of the reagents and even instruments. I would joke that we were lucky that we didn’t have to synthesize water! Sanction was also affecting our chance to publish our work in International journals and I do know that this is still the case for Iranians researchers, including many smart hardworking friends of mine, who decided to stay in Iran and help future generation. I began to understand that if I want to learn more about the complexity of human biology and do more complex research, I would have to apply for post-doctoral degree somewhere outside Iran, in other countries that are not on sanctions.
I applied for a Post Doc position in USA. Before I finished my PhD, I got H1B visa. When I finished my PhD, I said goodbye to all my loved ones and left everything behind; having a pharmacy of my own, being an assistant professor, living close to my family and my friends and helping future generations. I pursued another dream of developing my career and learning more about human physiology, pathophysiology and the value of precision medicine in diseases prevention, diagnosis and treatment, and of course, sharing my culture in my new home.
In 2012, I joined Mike Snyder’s team at Stanford. He is the head of the department of genetics. In his lab, I had the opportunity to expand my knowledge on precision medicine, which allow us to understand each person as a unique individual, based on the genetic structure, culture, diet, environmental exposure and life style and traumas. We use cutting edge technologies and Multi-omics tools to look at the billions of molecule and then then re-construct them together generating the molecular landscape of each person. This will help us to understand why some people develop particular type of diseases and how they can be treated. At Stanford I got involved in a study, related to Connective Tissue Disorders, which later led me to studying Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). The more I studied these diseases, the more I got interested in better understanding the underlying pathological mechanisms of a few overlapping conditions, which affect millions of American and many more in the world. ME/CFS, Post Lyme syndrome, PANS (Pediatric Acute Onset of Neurological Disorders) and EDS are among these overlapping conditions. With the support of a lot of people and also an international team of researchers, we are trying to understand these conditions to help the patients.
I feel fortunate to have the opportunity of being a world citizen and go beyond one nationality mentality. However, I do wish sometimes that traveling to other countries could have been easier for everyone, so people would have the chance to leave their birth country and get to know the rest of the world. I strongly believe this will help people to feel connected stronger, by knowing how common our needs and our stories are! It is 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.
Even though it was my own choice to leave the motherland and explores other parts of the world, I wish I didn’t need to worry this much about the future of my family and many more in Iran who are targeted by sanctions. I wish I didn’t hear every day that USA might attack Iran, or how bad the relationships between two countries are. I wish the world wouldn’t see the face of innocent Afghani, Iraqi, Syrians, Yemenis, Libyans’, and other children’s who are trapped in war zone or affected by global warming. I wish we would never hear about building a wall that sperate mothers from their children. I wish there was no border and human beings would values each other with dignity and respect. I wish governments were selected to help their people and their courtiers and respect other nations, not to fulfill the dream of one party!
Growing up after revolution, my generation has experienced the harshest sanction throughout our entire life, and they are still suffering. We grew up having empty fridges and people having to wait in long line for getting their food. Still, I couldn’t believe that sanctions could also target science! Here in USA, we never talk about what happens to people with rare diseases or chronic complex diseases, when a country decides to put sanction in another country! We don’t talk about how malnutrition can affect the future generation of those nations! We might instead hear about what are the differences between iPhone 11 and iPhone 11S!
I was lucky enough to be trained by many scientists, who got their training from western countries and brought their expertise and knowledge back to young Iranians researchers. I wish Iranians’ researcher in USA could also offer the same to younger researchers in Iran. But this is becoming very hard when we see researchers are sent to jail because of taking antibodies to Iran! 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. 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 “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 and got trapped in war zone or in places with no future for our children to grow safe? We would do the same.