As with most Iranians who move to the US, scientist Tara Karimi felt a profound culture shock at first. But, for her, the “common language of science” helped make it possible to start her new life. Four years on —“but it feels like 10 years!” she says — she’s started her own business, Cemvita Technologies, a company with interdisciplinary research at its heart and which focuses on finding solutions to some of human physiology’s biggest challenges.
It’s all about connecting the dots in order to see the big picture. “Nature doesn’t dissect chemistry, physics, or mathematics from one another — they are all integrated,” Karimi says. “We humans separated them from each other to make it easier to be studied. There are still a lot of unknowns about nature that we can start to understand, only if we believe in universal science.”
Karimi looks at the “bugs” in human coding — what we know as disease. The challenge is finding out how molecular systems develop autonomous behavior — or “self-organize” — at the early stages of life. When this is applied to artificial intelligence, Karimi says, real advances can be made in fighting currently incurable diseases, including cancers, neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s, and auto-immune diseases. And there’s a good chance we’ll begin to see the benefits of this research in under 10 years.
Like so many around the world, Karimi was shocked to hear about the death of Iranian-American maths genius Maryam Mirzakhani, who died on July 14. She had planned to work with Mirzakhani on mathematical applications of her work. “Professor Mirzakhani was an inspiration to me in many ways,” Karimi says. “She had a beautiful mind and heart. I’m deeply saddened by her loss and this has motivated me much further to not stop until we win the fight against cancer. Her legacy lives as she touched so many minds and hearts, including mine.”
How Nature Played its Role
Karimi spent her early years in one of Iran’s most important cultural centers, Shiraz, also a place of natural beauty. “Our house was next to a lovely open field. I remember walking through the field, and crossing a beautiful river to get to school every day with my friends. That made going to school fun.” From an early age, she had a strong interest in animals and their biology. “I had a little turtle as a pet, which I took with me everywhere. As a kid, I was so curious to know how my turtle made her own little portable shell. She could rest in her own little room even when we were outside of home…that was my first close bond with animals.”
Looking at how different scientific disciplines complemented and benefitted each other was almost instinctual for Karimi, a rational way for her to look at learning and discovery. “In high school I was drawn to biology, while my older brother and younger sister studied physics and mathematics. We were always discussing what they were working on; this later helped me have an appreciation for physics and mathematics as a biochemist.”
She went on to study veterinary medicine at Shiraz University. “In medicine, you only learn about humans, but in veterinary medicine you learn about different species, from bees to fish, birds and large zoo animals. This was what got me curious about how and why these animals are different yet some of their operating systems are very similar.”
Her time at university built on her love for learning.“In Iran, more than 60 percent of college students are females,” she says. “In our class, a third were girls.” But university was also where she began to understand the challenges women face in science, sometimes on a very practical level. “I was challenged by the practical part of veterinary medicine since it requires a lot of physical strength. For example, you need to be able to [help] give birth to a baby horse! Being a thin girl, I had to exercise and try hard to meet the physical expectation. It was hard but it didn’t stop me. As a veterinary student, you also need to improve your ‘soft skills’ to communicate with animals. Horses are my favorite, they are so intelligent and lovely, and can be your best friend. Horse-riding is my favorite sport.”
Working Three Times as Hard
Karimi says being a woman in science is tough no matter where you are in the world. “The US is more competitive, and when you are a female, you must work twice as hard. For me as an Iranian woman, I’ll have to work three times as hard — and I’ve been doing that. The media and society pay a lot of attention to women in Hollywood; however, there is a growing movement to support women in science. I think that’s really great.”
The golden years for any professional in science or business is between 25-40, and that happens at the same window that nature has prepared women to have babies. Men have an easier time with this and can focus on their career during this same time. One of my goals is to come up with ways to extend this window for women — for example by making freezing cells much more affordable for all young females.”
What Artificial Intelligence can Learn from Nature
Her company Cemvita Technologies uses what Karimi calls “cognitive chemistry,” a series of biologically-inspired approaches to tackle some of the most pressing problems facing human physiology, as well as working to improve brain performance. It’s an ambitious project, inspired by Karimi’s broad experience in a staggering number of disciplines — veterinary medicine, biochemistry, genetics, stem cell biology, tissue engineering, embryology, and stem cells programming — and her quest to know more about intelligence in these biological systems. Key to this is garnering an ability to build new systems with “intrinsic intelligence.” The systems must be able to respond and adapt quickly to change or new situations — and the answers are largely in nature. Karimi uses the example of an ant, which can make “very fast decisions and adapt to the environment in real time,” she says. “In addition, it can transfer signals to the other ants and announce the new situation to its entire colony.”
In a recent TEDxRiceU talk, Karimi acknowledges that some people might find artificial intelligence daunting, or even scary.
“The main concern about the vast application of AI in human life is about the safety and security of the system that could potentially be more intelligent than humans. AI can be very intelligent and learn dynamically, but we can also define a set of programs to dictate our desired rules — for example, ethical rules. Or built-in limitations. Imagine the limitations that we have as human beings. For example, nature designed the human brain to be very intelligent, with unlimited memory space and unlimited creativity. But, on the other hand, nature engineered special codes for the circadian hormonal mechanisms that are programmed to hibernate our brain during the night. Sleep is a physiological need and we cannot avoid it. I think nature is the best teacher and we can learn from the highly balanced designs in nature.”
Today, Karimi lives in what she describes as a “beautiful mid-century neighborhood” in Houston, home to a sizeable Persian community. “I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had here,” she says. “I’m working on fields of science that could possibly create whole new industries born in the US. I also hope that my work will inspire women in science.” She sees, too, the contributions Iranian-Americans make to US society and the economy. “In entrepreneurship, sometimes being an immigrant gives you the drive for success and I think Iranians in the US exemplify that,” she says.
“I hope science can be a unifying factor to bring people together. Just like nature didn’t define chemistry or physics, the earth didn’t come with borders.”
Tara Karimi is currently writing a book, Molecular Mechanism of Self-Organization and Autonomy in Biological Systems, which will be published by Springer.