Biology and Chemistry Alumna’s Focus on Women’s Health Leads to Fulbright Award

Now a Mayo medical student, Nazanin Kazemi immigrated to the U.S. knowing one word of English
Nazanin Kazemi at UMKC graduation

Nazanin Kazemi always wanted to go to medical school and had a desire to make international collaboration a cornerstone of her career as a scientist. Kazemi recently received a Fulbright award to pursue her studies in ovarian cancer and placenta biology at the University of Geneva.  

How did you feel when you heard about the Fulbright award? What difference does it make for you?

Being a Fulbright Scholar is such an incredible opportunity and I am so thankful - and still in disbelief. I really feel that being selected as a Fulbright Scholar is the realization of my "American Dream." My parents and I moved to the United States from Iran in 1999. Between the three of us, we knew about two words of English. I only knew how to say, "Hello."

My education has always been their top priority and I feel like this is a culmination of their sacrifices toward my future. We live in a truly unique country when a first-generation college student and first-generation immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English in 1999 can become a Fulbright scholar while training at one of the nation's top hospitals.

What led you to pursue studying in Switzerland?  

I have always wanted to make international collaboration a cornerstone of my career as a scientist because diversity of thought and training are truly integral to the success of our research - and in turn to the options that we are able to provide patients. I am excited about the Fulbright program because their goals are so well-aligned with my own. They have a reputation for helping students establish relationships with communities all over the world in many different fields.

Living in Switzerland will not only progress my projects and training, but will also be an incredible opportunity to explore the Swiss culture. Having spent a lot of time hiking, climbing and doing yoga in the Midwest, I am excited to meet the Swiss communities around these outdoor hobbies and take advantage of the natural beauty of Switzerland's iconic mountains and hiking trails. As an avid cook, I will be able to learn more about Swiss history by learning to make traditional dishes such as raclette.

I will be leaving for Switzerland in September, if the pandemic is under control by then.

"I really feel that being selected as a Fulbright Scholar is the realization of my 'American Dream'." -Nazanin Kazemi

What are you studying and working on at Mayo?

Currently, I am earning my doctorate in immunology. I study how the maternal immune system is reactivated at the end of pregnancy to help induce labor and how this activation can cause pre-eclampsia and pre-term labor when dysregulated. I will be spending the final year of my doctorate as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Geneva to establish an ongoing collaboration between our institutes. I will then return to Mayo to finish medical school. 

I’m passionate about these areas of research because they are integral to the health of women around the world. Pre-eclampsia and pre-term labor are leading causes of maternal and fetal morbidity and mortality. Currently, diagnostics and treatment are lacking for the majority of these complications. By understanding the mechanisms involved in their pathophysiology, we can improve outcomes for women and children everywhere.

Ovarian cancer also presents a significant threat to women's health because it is often detected very late (stage III or IV) when current treatments are not as effective. Understanding the biology of this malignancy can help us provide earlier diagnoses and better treatments.

I want to be a physician-scientist to be in the service of others, and I have been incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to train at an institution with the same dedication to service. 

What led you to your interest in women’s health?

I have always been interested in women's health because I really believe that women are the most integral part of our society. The health of women all over the world has undeniable implications for the health of every facet of our society from the health and success of our future generations to the global economy. Moreover, we live in an era where, despite women all around the world making amazing progress toward our rights and fair treatment, we still face a great deal of prejudice and abuse. I am dedicated to women's health because I believe in a world where every woman feels safe, respected and treated fairly and is able to pursue her goals without fear.

As a first-generation college student and first-generation immigrant, I have always known that education is the biggest privilege. I believe those of us fortunate enough to pursue our education undeterred have a duty to those who have not had the same opportunities. I am determined to use the amazing opportunities I have been given to serve women all over the world. 

I read a story where you said that your parents instilled the philosophy that women made this world and run this world. How did their perspective affect how you see the world and yourself?

My parents raised me to be a feminist. In a world where women are not treated equally and do not get to enjoy the same freedoms as men, my parents are determined to teach me and my sister that those views are wrong. Our education is their biggest priority and is the reason we moved to the United States. My dad has been dedicated to raising strong, fearless, self-reliant, independent girls. I remember being very young and fearful about many things. My dad would always say, "Go ahead and don’t be scared!"

"As a first-generation college student and first-generation immigrant, I have always known that education is the biggest privilege."

Fulbright at UMKC 

Since 1946, the Fulbright Specialist Program has sponsored hundreds of thousands of students, scholars, teachers, artists and professionals of all backgrounds and fields the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to important international problems. To date, 18 other alumni have received Fulbright awards.

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