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Dr. Mahtab Jafari: Associate Professor, Pharmaceutical Sciences & Director of Undergraduate Pharmaceutical Sciences Program, University of California, Irvine

November 15, 2013

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 3.A, Idea: Women in Academia (Part Two)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Undergraduate Journal

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: November 15, 2013

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2014

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 3,501

ISSN 2369-6885


1. What positions have you held? What position do you currently hold?

I am an Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Director of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Undergraduate program at University of California, Irvine. (UCI)

2. In brief, how was your youth? How did you come to this point?  What was your original dream?

I was lucky to be raised in a family with loving parents.  They were both educated and cared about the education of their children. They were open-minded.  They encouraged my two brothers and I to choose careers that we liked, especially my mother.  She was supportive of me.  She was also a university professor.  Growing up, I lived in 3 different countries. I think being exposed to different cultures and languages had a big impact on who I am today.

I became interested in science in the fifth grade.  I describe this in a TEDx talk.  That is the story of how I came to this point.  I feel lucky because I do exactly what I dreamed about doing in fifth grade.  My dream was to do scientific work and teach.  I love to learn.  When working in science, you have no choice, but to learn.  I am living my dream right now. (Laughs)

3. When did Pharmaceutical Sciences interest you?

When I got sick as a kid, my parents used to take me to Dr. Maani. My first strep throat was painful. I had a high fever, body ache and could not swallow anything, even my own saliva. Dr. Manni got a swab culture from my throat, checked it under the microscope, and started me on antibiotics. When we went back to see him for a follow-up, he spent a lot of time explaining to me the importance of hand washing and having a strong immune system. I loved to go back for these follow ups because the prize for getting better was always a lollipop.  I also remember that every fall, my entire family would go to Dr. Maani for our flu shots. In my neighborhood, Dr. Maani was considered a hero. Everyone respected him and everyone loved him. Many kids (including me) wanted to become Dr. Maani when we grew up.

By now, you are probably thinking Dr. Maani was an amazing primary care physician, that he was the neighborhood doctor who cared about his patients. Well, you are right about thinking that he was our neighborhood doctor, but he was not a physician. Dr. Maani was an amazing neighborhood pharmacist. He had a Pharm. D., a wealth of knowledge, and a passion to teach and help people.

4. Where did you acquire your education?

I earned my Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of California, San Francisco.

And then I did a Clinical Pharmacy Residency at University of California, San Francisco.

5. What kinds of research have you conducted up to the present?

I used to be a clinical scientist.  If you look at my publications and research up to 2005, I was a clinician.  I mostly did research on pharmaceuticals.  My main work was around cardiovascular pharmacotherapy.  I left academia in 2002 and worked as a senior scientist for Abbott Laboratories for a few years. I worked on metabolic complications of Central Nervous System (CNS) drugs.

Then in 2005, I came back to UCI and joined Pharmaceutical Sciences.  The focus of my research shifted from diseases of aging such as cardiovascular diseases and neurological disorders to aging.  I became interested in slowing the aging process.  At present, I am working with botanical extracts because I believe if we use them at the right dose and quality they are safer than medications.  So we work with botanical extracts and try to extend lifespan, but I have to tell you I didn’t choose to work with botanical extracts from the start.  Sometimes, I like to think my fruit flies chose this for me.  We were screening for anti-aging drugs, compounds, supplements, natural extracts, and botanical extracts.  Plants and  botanical extracts, did the best during this screening process.  With fruit flies there is no placebo effect, I cannot tell you, “They felt real good having Tumeric.” (Laughs)

6. If you currently conduct research, what form does it take?

Mainly, I work with Drosophila, fruit flies.  That is our main model system.  Additionally, we conduct cell culture research.  We work with human-cultured cells.  Again, we use these as a model system to identify agents, which are all botanical extracts at the moment, that extend lifespan and to understand their mechanism of action.

7. How much did you increase the lifespan of the Drosophila fruit flies?

By 25%! Our most recent publication,  received much media attention with an Orange County Register article on June 26th. We have been on many media venues such as MSN, Yahoo! Voices, and others like this.

8. Since you began studying Pharmaceutical Sciences, what do you consider the controversial topics? How do you examine the controversial topics?

This could be an essay. (Laughs)  I could write a ten-page essay or talk for hours.  In Pharmaceutical Sciences and research, we have a few challenges.  For instance, there is the area of ethical conduct of research.  When we talk of randomized double-blind controlled studies, especially in psychiatry literature where you use patient interviews and scales, you are probably more familiar with it, Scott, the results can be subjective. In other words, I could conduct research to bring forth the results desired by me.  Research is controversial.  The safety of some of the medications, which are already approved by the FDA is controversial.

In my field, with my interest in dietary supplements and botanical extracts, my controversy is looking for the quality and safety of these supplements.  For instance, the reporter from the Orange County Register asked me, “In 2008, you published a study with Rhodiola Rosea showing a 10% increase in lifespan.  Now, you have 25% increase, what happened?”  I told him, “Fruit flies don’t lie.  We gave them a better quality product and better things happened.”   That is exactly what happened.  When we characterize the plant that we gave them back in 2008, the plants had the active components, which you like to see in Rhodiola Rosea.  It was Rosavin and Salidroside, but percentage wise the extract in the 2013 paper was superior. With this superior extract, my fruit flies did better.  Therefore, a superior extract produces better results.  For me, the controversy with the work right now is on dietary supplements and botanical extracts.  My questions are, “How good is the quality of the product?  How safe is the product?”  A big controversy arising from this, which I think is applicable to both pharmaceuticals and botanical extracts is false advertisement.  With my position as a Professor, my primary job is to be an educator, ahead of a research.   I tell my students that I consider myself an educator and a teacher above all else.  If I cannot translate my science into an understandable fashion for people, what is the use of that science?

I am not familiar with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Canada.  I can tell you about the FDA in the United States.  If you had asked me to comment about FDA four years ago, I would have told you, “The FDA is very ineffective and slow.” Now, I work closely with them and I know first hand what an important function FDA plays in our public health. I developed an internship for our UCI Pharmaceutical Sciences students at the FDA.  One of the goals is to expose them to the FDA, but an opportunity for them to become ambassadors to educate the public about FDA and to improve public health. For instance teaching the public how to report drug adverse effects to FDA could be a major contribution.  Sometimes, you may experience an adverse drug reaction.  Even if you do not know what the cause is, you still have to report it to the FDA because one never knows.  We see how much FDA tries.  We see how much they do.  Reality: they are understaffed and under-budgeted.   What do you do in that situation?  How could you deal with that?  Their work is very important, but they need more resources.

9. How would you describe your early philosophical framework? Did it change? If so, how did it change?

I do not know what to tell you about my Philosophical Framework. I like to think that it is a philosophy that encompasses the teachings of philosophers whose goal was to improve humanity. However, I can tell you about service. I was raised in a household devoted to service. My parents and grandparents were involved with the community at many levels.  I guess this framed my life philosophy.

For me, Humanism is one aspect of it, especially based on my upbringing . I have a special outlook on life.  As a scientist, sometimes you are questioned about religions and the existence of God. However, our science is not advanced enough to understand the big picture. One day it will do that, I am hopeful for science.

A pillar of my philosophical framework is a strong sense of ethics, and practical ethics. I am not a philosopher or an ethicist. However, in my mind, if an ethical principle is unpracticed, what good is it?

10. If you had infinite funding and full academic freedom, what would you research?

If I had infinite funding, I would conduct the same research that I am doing now and for teaching, I would start an education reform to focus on conceptual understanding and not memorizing. I am optimistic that if I had more funding, I could contribute a lot more to biomedical research. I would expand my basic work to clinical work.  As I said, I was a clinician.  I understand basic science, translational science, and clinical science.  If I had unlimited funding, I would begin interesting human trials, and start testing my extracts in humans.  By the way, if I had infinite funding, I did not have to spend so much time writing grants. I would focus more on research and teaching.

Scott, I see another controversy.  A big problem in this country with the study of botanical extracts is taking the western magnifier to dissect botanical extracts to find out what specific molecule is functioning. What do we find with this kind of work? We may identify a few active molecules but we still see that the whole extract works best. People have used these extracts for thousands of years.  They have seen results.  Then we say, “Rhodiola Rosea is a great plant and it  has many benefits, but I want to know exactly what molecules are beneficial.”  If I had infinite funding, I would not worry about the grant reviewers.  I would work with the whole extract, not the molecule.  That is a big controversy in botanical extract research.  That is probably the reason for controversy behind my research because we produce good results with the whole extract.  I understand the commercial value.  Many of my colleagues tell me, “If you isolate the molecule, you can patent it.  You can make money.”  I tell them, “Why would I want to do that?”  Nature knows best. (Laughs) But of course we will devote some of our efforts to identifying active molecules in the extracts we work with.

11. From the philosophical point of view, there has been much comparison between Western and Eastern philosophies.  Western philosophies tend to have a particular view.  It asks, especially Aristotle, “How can I separate the world into fundamental units?”  It seems non-accidental to me to have the Atomists like Democritus and Leucippus come from this philosophical tradition in the West.   Whereas in the East, obviously not as an absolute, but there seems to me a greater tendency towards analysis of whole systems…

…Think of Avicenna, what did he say?  He was perhaps the founder of modern medicine. He is an Eastern Iranian philosopher. He said that you needed to focus on the whole person and not just on his symptoms.  Until we do that in medicine, we will stay where we are right now; a reactive approach to health and an illness model. We treat the symptom and not the root of the problem. We prescribe antibiotic for the infection or a pain medication for the pain because we are interested in treating the symptom fast. But I hope that we move away from this model to a wellness model when we treat the whole person and not just his symptoms and when we take a proactive and preventive approach. This was the reason that I offered the Life 101 class.  My students with anxiety take Xanax.  When they are sad and depressed, they take Prozac. When they need to stay awake to study, they take Ritalin.  My  20-year old students take all these medications and  they sadly received prescriptions for them.  I offered Life 101 based on these facts. I wanted to give my students tools to manage their stress and aim for wellness..  If you deal with the root of the problem, I guarantee that you will not need to take these medications.

12. …On the Harvard campus, I read about Positive Psychology courses.  Two people doing much research are Drs. Tal Ben Shahar and Daniel Gilbert. Positive Psychology is one of the most popular courses on campus…

I want to take that course! Their popularity tells you the importance people see in this material.

13. What other areas have robust research attesting to evidence for life-extending properties of an ingested compound (or compound with a specific active ingredient in it)?

There are a number of researchers working with botanical extracts or compounds to extend lifespan.  They have been successful.  I take pride in our work because our results are replicable and they seem to work even in healthy fruit flies. A science that cannot be replicated in other countries or other labs is not real science. For instance, the compound resveratrol extends lifespan, mostly in diabetic and high caloric intake situations.  We showed our fruit flies do not need to be unhealthy to experience life extension with Rhodioal rosea, which is a significant finding. Resveratrol only extended lifespan in mice with diabetes and obesity.  That is not the case with Rhodiola rosea.  We gave Rhodiola rosea to both calorically restricted and non-calorically restricted fruit flies and still observed an extension in lifespan.  As far as my research, I can tell you my research is robust because Rhodiola has worked in different strains of flies and different model systems and it has had a positive impact on health and tolerance to stress, but we still have a long way to go.. Our findings need to be repeated in mammalian model systems and eventually humans.

16. You have a personal story of continuing forward in spite of hardship, planting seeds in the process, and sowing the later benefits of that perseverance.  What advice do you have for students going through hardships – big and small?

My younger brother, Kay who is a Law student, taught me something valuable.  A few months ago, I was under a lot of pressure for a grant deadline and felt stressed.  Kay told me, “Stress is only a reaction.  You choose to be stressed.”  I tell my students, “Rather than focusing on details, you should focus on the big picture.”  When my son, Matin, was 13 years old, he gave a TEDxYouth talk.  In it, he said, “There’s nothing wrong with being knocked down – just get back up.”  We all have hardships. The key is how fast you recover and refocus on the big picture, not the details.

17. …There is a Parade Magazine columnist, Marilyn vos Savant, who said, “Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent…”

…That’s right.  I still go through hardships – big and small.  I have my dream job, but I worry about my students and of course research funding!  It sounds cliché, “Never give up.” I want to add one sentence to it. It’s part of life to feel down and upset, but try to minimize it. I tell my students, “You failed your MCAT. Okay, cry for a day, but not for a month.” (Laughs)  Take responsibility for the mistakes you make and your actions, accept it, and then move on. We have become a blaming society. We look outside of ourselves to find someone or something to blame. I do it myself sometimes.  I do not understand it.  In this Life 101 class, we talk about emotional intelligence by taking responsibility for our actions.  I wish I had a better answer, but I do not have one. (Laughs)

Happiness is a funny thing. Go and help someone, see how you feel. You will notice something. You will want to help more and you feel so happy.

18. You have received multiple awards for mentorship and teaching excellence.  What do these mean to you?  What responsibility do these awards entail?

I feel honored and humbled. My responsibility is to keep listening to my students to improve the way I teach and mentor.  Earning a reward does not mean you have reached excellence.  I feel blessed, Scott.  I have such an open line of communication with my students.  They feel comfortable with giving me feedback as I teach.  For instance, two weeks into my course one of my students said, “Dr. Jafari, why did you look grumpy in class?” I replied, “I didn’t look grumpy!”  He said, “Yes, you did especially in the beginning of your lecture.  You did not smile once for the first fifteen minutes.  When you smile, you make us feel comfortable.”  He was paying close attention and he was right.

19. Who most influenced you? Can you recommend any books/articles by them?

I cannot think of specific authors.  I read a lot, but I cannot think of just one article or a book of great influence on me. I consider my mother the most influential person in my life. I am not saying this because she is my mother. I am saying this because she is brutally honest with me. She never sugar coated anything and to date she points  to my weaknesses or my flaws. Of course, sometimes I don’t like it, but I know I cannot change her. So, I hear her comment, I get upset and then I realized she was right and then move on. Talking about a true humanitarian, my mom is one of those people.

One book comes to mind, which I had one of my graduate students read.  It is called The Purple Cow written by Seth Godin. It is a marketing book. His message is this, ‘if you want to be successful, you need a high quality product and a very outside the box product.’  You can apply this to science and teaching too.

20. Where do you see Pharmaceutical Sciences going?  Regarding lifespan extension through botanicals, what future do you envision for this research?

I can tell you what I hope for Pharmaceutical Sciences to go as a field. I hope that Pharmaceutical Sciences move towards discovering new therapies to treat diseases in a collaborative fashion. I wish that one day pharmaceutical scientists in pharmaceutical companies and in academic settings collaborate and not compete because I think with collaborations we will achieve more faster. As far as my research with botanical extracts goes, my goal is to slow the aging process with these extracts. Of course I will continue devoting some of my work in identifying the active molecules in these extracts.  But I still think when it comes to aging and targeting various genes and pathways, plants work better as a whole and not when they are dissected. I would not  think this way 5 or 6 years ago.  In 2005, when I started developing an anti-aging lab using fruit flies, I tested many pharmaceuticals and some botanicals. My findings surprised me because botanical extracts did much better than the molecules or pharmaceuticals. Of course, how we approach and work with a plant extract in my lab is exactly how we would work with a drug. We control for their quality and we have consistent standardization methods – meaning you standardize every time you use them. Working with botanical extracts is challenging because the active compounds change depending on external factors such as altitude, temperature, harvesting time, and that is why standardization is important.


Creative Commons Licence In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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