The young scientist
Award-winning molecular biologist Saba Valadkhan
March 8, 2005
Saba Valadkhan is the recipient of the 2004
Young Scientist Award organized by GE Healthcare and
She received the grand prize ($25,000) for identifying "a
relic from the RNA world" and proving its catalytic potential
-- thus, solving a 20-year-old molecular riddle.
attended medical school in Iran. In 1993
she placed fourth
in the nationwide Basic Sciences Medical Board Exam. Three
years later she was accepted to the graduate school at the New
York's Columbia University, where she received
awards for both teaching and research. In 2004 she joined Case
Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, as an assistant
professor and was named a
Searle Scholar the same year.
Here's my email interview with Valadkhan:
Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in a small town on the outskirts of Tehran. I grew
up in Tehran and lived there until I was 23-years old. Then I moved
to the US.
How did you get interested in science? When was the
earliest time you knew you were going to be a scientist?
When I was in the first years of medical school I became fascinated
with the basic sciences. We had to take courses in biochemistry,
immunology, physiology, etc. In those days -- early 1990's -- molecular
biology had just started to revolutionize medicine. For the first
time, diseases had a known molecular basis. The definition of diseases,
our understanding of their mechanism, and the therapeutic options
were changing overnight. It was the start of an amazing era, and
the possibilities were, and are, boundless.
Then we started the clinical part of our training, and it was
a huge let down. As is often the case, practice of medicine lagged
far behind the advances in molecular medicine, and compared to
the glittery, cutting-edge molecular medicine, clinic was repetitive,
boring, and almost medieval.
And it was also the impact factor. The advances in molecular
biology came first, and then tiny bits and pieces of them were
being translated into a million new practical uses, later to be
adopted in the clinical practice. Clearly, the big game was being
played in the basic science research labs. For a 20-year old facing
a career decision, the choice was very clear.
What is the significance of your discovery? How will it impact
I have shown the underlying mechanism by which the spliceosome,
which is a huge assembly of various cellular molecules, prepares
the information stored in our genes for being used [see
Almost all of our genes need to undergo this "preparation
for use" process
and so have to go through the spliceosome.
It goes without saying
how crucial, then, the function of the spliceosome must be. Over
30% of all genetic diseases, many cancers, certain types of Alzheimer
and other neurodegenerative diseases, among other pathologies,
result from mistakes in the function of the spliceosome. Extension
of the work I have done in the coming years will elucidate how
these mistakes happen, and ultimately, will lead to new possibilities
for preventing and curing them.
There's an ongoing debate about discrimination against
women in the field of science. Were you ever discouraged from
science? Either by parents, counselors or educators? What is your
understanding of this controversy?
I think this is just an extension of the general lack of trust
in abilities of women that is unfortunately present in all societies.
In Iran, unfortunately, it is openly discussed as a fact that women
are less capable than men. But even the so-called "advanced" societies
like the U.S. share this attitude, although it is expressed in
a more sophisticated way.
Still, the negativity is clearly there,
whether it's the patronizing discussions on the effect of
motherhood and family duties on women's ability to conduct
science, or the outrageous talk of "genetic factors" that
make women less suitable for scientific careers. Still, both in
Iran and in the US, you can significantly change the atmosphere
by being self-assertive and result-oriented, and with more and
more women achieving remarkable success in various careers, the
prejudiced skeptics are in fast retreat.
Have you ever been directly discouraged from studying
Yes. Because I was a girl? No. I was told that science isn't
good enough for me, since doctors have a better financial and social
status than scientists, and because science in Iran is poorly funded
and, sadly, in a bad shape.
But if you ask whether I have been
discouraged from having a career because I was a girl, the answer
is very much
affirmative. Young women in Iran are being told every day that
they are the weaker sex, more suitable for household work, bound
to become mothers and hence have other priorities, and that anyway,
careers are optional for women, since it's OK for women
to be financially dependent. Even when a woman is successful in
her career, people dismiss it by alleging that "she's
really a man!"
What practical steps can women take to overcome discrimination
in the field of science? What can be done other than persistence
I think if women start to believe in themselves, others will
follow suit. Women should believe that they are capable individuals,
that they are primarily citizens and human beings, not mothers
or wives or housemaids. If women put as much energy in their careers
as their male counterparts do, they will sure reach the highest
What is your advice to parents? How can they detect and
develop their daughter's interest in science?
Parents have a tremendously important role in shielding their
daughters from the discouraging tone of patriarchal societies.
They should make it clear that they believe in their daughter,
and that they believe she can do great things.
Even in a traditional
society like Iran there are many women who are real big shots
and parents can suggest these women as role models for their daughters.
Iran has had only one Nobel Prize and an Iranian woman has been
the recipient. And why shouldn't their daughter be the second
And for god's sake, they should stop forcing girls to
learn stuff like cooking and other household chores, it's
embarrassing. Are they bringing up housemaids or what?
You mentioned you were in Iran
until you were 23. Who was the teacher who inspired
you most? What schools did you attend?
I attended ordinary state schools throughout my primary education,
Parvin Etesami primary school, Salman Farsi junior high, and 8th
Shahrivar high school. In general I had a good experience with
all my teachers and schools. I was younger than my classmates by
a couple of years and I was doing well in school, so I received
lots of attention. I was exempt from all the rules. I certainly
did take advantage of that!
I think we were blessed with great teachers. Mrs. Farnia, who
was our chemistry teacher in high school, told us "if you
girls use your brains, you'll see why it's important
to study hard: if you become a doctor, you'll be able to
hire someone to help you in the housework, otherwise, you'll
have to wash all the dirty linen yourself!" That threat was
sure to work with me!
Mrs. Zhenik, my physics teacher, once called
me to attend a senior physics class when I was a sophomore, since
I had asked a question that was related to what she was teaching
that day. Nobody encouraged them to do these extra things for
us, but they loved us and loved their job. While none of our teachers
told us that we can conquer the world if we try, they did send
the empowering message that we can improve our condition as women
in the Iranian society through education and having careers.
As someone who only glances at the news and follows trends
only on the surface, I get the sense that researchers in science
and medicine are very close to finding the secrets of life and
death. We could very well see people of our own generation living
to be 200-years old or more. How much of this is wishful thinking
and how much of it is close to the truth? Is the Preservation of
life the ultimate objective?
The ultimate objective of all sciences has almost always been
improving the life standards of the human society. Curing the diseases
of aging is certainly within that framework, and it might well
lead to an expanded life span.
About secrets of life and death,
I wouldn't know! But researchers in biological sciences are
certainly close to unraveling a lot of secrets. While this is
certainly very exciting, it's important to be cautious in using
newly gained knowledge. I think it's safe to bet that people
will have much healthier lives throughout their life span, as
long as they can afford to pay for it.
For those who are in college and are thinking
about majoring in science, what areas do you
believe are "hot" and interesting to pursue?
I think in general all areas of science are very interesting
if studied in depth. I guess the best guide is one's interest.
This is a very exciting time to be a biologist, though, and biological
sciences are relatively well-funded. I'm a molecular biologist,
which means that I find this field most exciting, but neuroscience
is also truly amazing.
What is your next research project? Do you have
one particular scientific goal you would like to
My immediate next project would be to expand the work I have
done and try to gain more knowledge about the way our genetic data
is processed. But there are many intriguing questions left unanswered
in biology and for sure I would like to try and tackle some of
them and have a lot of fun doing that.