PhD Candidate in Chemical Engineering
Sasha Ebrahimi is PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. His research is currently focused on developing nucleic acid-based probes for detecting analytes in living cells. This work seeks to create tools that enable researchers and clinicians to study the evolution of chemical signatures as a disease progresses, potentially changing paradigms related to how diseases like cancer are diagnosed and treated. In 2019, Sasha was awarded a Ryan Graduate Fellowship. Ryan Fellows are graduate students dedicated to the exploration of fundamental nanoscale science geared toward practical applications that benefit society.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
Cells are a complex soup made of various ingredients, such as metal ions, small molecules, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids. The early diagnosis of diseases like cancer is an outstanding challenge and limited by an incomplete understanding of how these ingredients in the soup go bad during disease. This challenge primarily stems from a lack of techniques that allow one to monitor the ingredients dynamically in live cells. We normally think of DNA as the A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s that make up the code of life. I think of DNA as a material that I then use to create and synthesize structures that enable us to study the biology happening inside of living cells in a new and better way, potentially shedding new light on the role of the ingredients in disease.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
The research I did in undergrad focused on graphene sheets and the fabrication of new classes of batteries. Now, I work on projects that are very bio-oriented, which initially forced me (and still does) to learn a lot of new things in areas I knew very little about.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I've been extremely fortunate to have great family, friends, mentors, and teachers throughout my life, without whom I'd never have been able to pursue my interests. All of those people have played an integral role in what I've chosen to do now as an adult. My AP chemistry teacher in high school particularly stands out as the first person to get me passionate about chemistry.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
I found failure to be a scary thing when I was younger. When I started doing research, I figured out that failure happens every day (some days, every hour!), and learning from those failures is the best way to become a better scientist.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
I work in a lab made up of chemists, chemical engineers, biologists, material scientists, and biomedical engineers. I like to think I'm pretty lucky to have the opportunity to learn from people with such an eclectic set of backgrounds on a daily basis. They never fail to amaze me with the science they do and the level of interdisciplinary thought that goes into it.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
From a fundamental perspective, the biggest impact my work can have is empowering scientists with the tools necessary to learn how the body works on a molecule-by-molecule basis. From a more technological standpoint, these tools can be used as a powerful new way to diagnose illnesses based on “chemical imaging” as opposed to the more commonly used structural imaging (e.g., MRI, CT-scan, etc.), in addition to conducting patient-specific drug screening for personalized medicine and rapidly identifying hard-to-detect diseases ranging from cancer to COVID-19 based on new markers that have so far remained invisible.
How do you unwind after a long day?
Running and playing tennis are two big ones!
What inspires you?
People who use their time and knowledge to make the world a better place. Any of my past or present teachers are a good example.
How would your closest friends describe you?
I asked my friends and learned a lot about myself. I didn't realize just how funny and charming they think I am (that's how I'm choosing to interpret what they said). I did enjoy "Sasha likes Shawn Mendes and Chobani yogurt a little too much."
What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
A politician and it's probably not too late.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
You should always pursue goals that you set for yourself, rather than the goals that other people set for you. Consider going down paths that you are passionate about because it makes your work feel less like work and more like fun.
Published: June 30, 2020
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