Shayan Nazari

Determination and Networking Land NIH Fellowship for Cancer Researcher
Doctorate, Biological Sciences

It’s a long way from Isfahan, Iran, to the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, but UNC Charlotte’s Shayan Nazari made it.

In December 2018, Nazari, a native of Iran and Ph.D. student in the Department of Biological Sciences, began a fellowship with the prestigious Graduate Partnership Program (GPP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As part of the Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE),  Nazari has a rare opportunity to complete her dissertation work using NIH lab tools and collaborating with like-minded scientists from across the country.

A member of Pinku Mukherjee’s lab, Nazari is one of 450 elite graduate researchers nationwide selected for the GPP this year.

“Since the day she started in my lab, she showed true motivation and commitment to cancer research and has made a real contribution,” Mukherjee said.

Nazari’s study aims to provide better understanding of how the density of mammary tissue affects breast cancer growth. In 2017, she took the top prize in UNC Charlotte’s Three-Minute Thesis competition for her presentation, “Breast Density: The Double-Edged Sword.”

According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women in America will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes.

“An important risk factor that is understudied but gaining attention is the presence of mammographic dense tissue in the breast,” Nazari said. “Half the women in the United States actually have high levels of mammographic dense tissue, which poses two major problems: It increases the risk for developing cancer by 4 to 6 times; and it can mask the cancer, making it hard to detect through standard screening and therefore goes undetected until it is too late.

“The lab I joined is expert in my field of research, which is studying the extracellular matrix in disease,” Nazari said. The extracellular matrix is the complex three-dimensional, or 3D,  microenvironment in tissue structure that plays a key role in the development of many cancers, including breast cancer. Her work uses 3D cell culture and imaging to analyze cancer cell signaling and behavior in mammographic dense tissue, with a goal of discovering ways to prevent and treat breast cancer.

Through the GPP, graduate students work in a highly collaborative research environment at the NIH with leading scientists and clinicians. They share the NIH campus with the largest translational research hospital in the nation.

What are the Chances?

Growing up 6,000 miles away from the NIH, in a place where science was a distant dream for a young girl, Nazari noted that her chance to become a scientist seemed slim.

Although a career in science was discouraged for girls, one day I found an astronomy book in a bookstore located in a more progressive side of town; I was absolutely captivated by the mathematical measurements and explanations for these beautiful beams of lights that scattered our skies every night,” she continued. “Although I did not know what these measurements represented, it sparked a curiosity that I carry with me to this day.”

A love for science, learning and discovery set in motion a chain reaction that compelled Nazari’s family of five to sacrifice their home life, sell their personal belongings and move across the globe to the United States to give Nazari and her two sisters a better future. Since then, Nazari has made science her life’s work, first in Virginia public schools and then at UNC Charlotte, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and launched her doctoral study. 

“Ms. Nazari is not just a scientist,” Mukherjee said. “She is also a leader and has many interests that set her apart. (She) accomplished a lot in two years in my lab and is equipped to further develop the project at NIH.”

As a graduate student, Nazari took full advantage of the resources UNC Charlotte offers to prepare for a rewarding career. She participated in professional development workshops at the Center for Graduate Life, served as a Graduate Life Fellow, a leadership program available through the center, and presided over the Graduate and Professional Student Government.

“My experiences were fundamental to my learning how to network and in building my confidence,” Nazari said. “The courses offered through the Center for Graduate Life gave me the basis I needed to take on leadership roles as a GLF and in GPSG, where networking is a requirement.”

At the start of her doctoral studies in 2016, Shayan received a one-year research assistantship grant from the Graduate School. She also landed an NIH G-SOAR internship last summer that proved to be the key to unlocking the door at the National Laboratory. While participating in the Graduate Summer Opportunity to Advance Research (G-SOAR) Program, Nazari said she was proactive in making connections and building relationships at the NIH.

Shortly before the start of her NIH fellowship, Nazari received the Gridley McKim-Smith Women’s Health Fellowship award, adding $5,000 in support for her research. She applied for the award based on her research focus. The McKim-Smith Fellowship is sponsored by The Foundation for Women’s Wellness, a nonprofit organization that supports “M.D./Ph.D. students, fellows and interns working on research in areas affecting the largest numbers of women—cardiovascular disease, female cancers, and the role of hormones in disease and stage-of-life health issues such as pregnancy and menopause.”

“This is an awesome opportunity for Shayan to work closely with others in a lab that is focused on the area of cancer research that is her passion,” said Tom Reynolds, associate provost and dean of the Graduate School.

Nazari’s work with the NIH has introduced her to advanced microscopy techniques, 3D cell culture systems, mass Spectrometry and molecular cloning. Opportunities outside the lab, such as coursework in a variety of disciplines, professional development workshops and weekly seminars featuring experts in their fields, are pointing her in career-defining directions.

“My NIH experience has shaped and solidified a goal of having my own research laboratory one day,” she said. “This now seems more attainable because of the training and the support I am receiving, especially in my current laboratory. Here, I really get to be the scientist I want to be due to the outstanding mentorship I’ve received from my main research advisor and the scientists and fellows with whom I work side-by-side and learn from every day.”