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Senior to Watch: Pouya Jamshidi

Ioana Patringenaru | January 7, 2008

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Pouya Jamshidi

Cognitive science,
with an emphasis on neuroscience
Earl Warren
Tehran, Iran
Farsi, English, German and Russian

As a child in his native Iran, Pouya Jamshidi used to get goose bumps when he listened to classical music. He decided he wanted to be an opera conductor, an ambition that he held on to until graduating from high school.

Five years ago, Jamshidi came to the United States and started learning about neuroscience. He got goose bumps again. He decided he wanted to become a neuroscientist.

Jamshidi, who still harbors a deep love of music, said he feels all the years he spent studying to become a conductor have prepared him to become a neurosurgeon and teaching physician. He added he sees parallels between these two professions.

“You have to be precise under pressure,” he said. “You can’t mess up.”

He came to UCSD two years ago as a transfer student from Santa Monica College. Since then, he has earned a Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer research scholarship, the Warren College Outstanding Undergraduate Research scholarship, the Alumni Association’s Vickerman Munoz Family Outstanding Leadership Award and an Iranian-American scholarship.

Also, he recently found out he will be UCSD’s only undergraduate to take part this year in the Exceptional Research Opportunity program offered by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. As a result, he will spend this summer at Columbia University working in the lab of Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize laureate in physiology and medicine. The program offers free housing and a $4,500 stipend. Jamshidi also will get to present the results of his research in Kandel’s lab in Washington, D.C. in May 2009.

Meanwhile, he plans to take a year off after graduation. He won’t be resting, though. He will be applying for medical school and plans to work in a medical clinic in Latin America. Jamshid also is a wine aficionado, so he would like to spend a few months working in a winery in Europe or Northern California. Then there’s an international orchestra that he would like to start with friends from UCSD’s I-House.

Music dominated Jamshidi’s childhood in Tehran, where his parents were accountants. When he was about five years old, he went to a concert with them. He came home determined to play an instrument and started violin lessons. Nine months later, he switched to the trumpet.

Pouya Jamshidi with a microscope

His family lived in an apartment back then, so young Pouya found a room in a basement where he could practice without disturbing neighbors. He took classes. He went on to learn the piano and the French horn and started playing in several orchestras. He finally joined the Tehran Philharmonic.

Meanwhile, he also went to college and was a few classes short of earning a college degree when his mother won a green card through the U.S. government’s Diversity Lottery Program. The program makes immigrant visas available every year through a random lottery system. Jamshidi had to be under 21 to immigrate with his parents, so he quit college and moved to Los Angeles.

Once in the United States, he realized it would be easier to start his studies from scratch than to try to get credit for his years of study in Iran. He enrolled at Santa Monica College. He also read V.S. Ramachandran’s “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness” and became fascinated with neuroscience.

Finally, he applied for a student job in a professor’s lab at UCLA. He didn’t get hired. So, he put on a tie and knocked on the professor’s office door. “I don’t take no for an answer,” he explained. He convinced the scientist to let him observe the lab. “Let me just sit and listen,” he said. “It’s good enough for me.” During his second week at the lab, the scientist gave him a test and hired him.

Soon it was time for Jamshidi to pick a four-year university. He was really torn between UC Berkeley and UCSD, he said. He visited Berkeley twice. But his colleagues at the UCLA lab told him UCSD was a leader in neuroscience. So he decided to head south. He said he found a warm and welcoming community here.

“I’ve been enjoying myself,” he said.

He also has been working hard and quickly stood out among his peers, his professors and mentors said. Professor Robert J. Schmidt met Jamshidi when he was a student in an introductory biology class. The transfer student quickly became a regular at office hours. “I could tell right away that Pouya wasn’t the type of student who wanted to know the facts for the exam, but who has a real interest in the subject,” Schmidt said.

Jamshidi seemed fascinated by biology, the professor recalls. “He reminds me of myself when I was growing up,” Schmidt said. “I couldn’t get enough.” The professor said he believes Jamshidi will make a fine physician. “He’s very caring,” the biologist said.

Jamshidi still comes by Schmidt’s office every once in a while to update him on his research progress and to ask for reading recommendations. The student is a self-described bookworm and Schmidt has pointed him his to such classics as Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and “The Double Helix,” among other tomes.

Pouya Jamshidi at the laboratory

Jamshidi also has become a regular in Adele Wilson’s office. The coordinator of the Health and Medical Professions Preparation Program works with almost 3,000 students and alumni every year. Here too, Jamshidi stands out. He’s always available to help, Wilson said. He’ll carry materials, help set up and give people rides.

“I feel like he’s found a home here,” said Wilson. “He just wants to give back what’s been given to him.”

At UCSD, Jamshidi was matched with renowned neuroscientist Mark Tuszynski through a faculty mentoring program. Usually, undergraduates do short-term stints in the professor’s lab. But Jamshidi is, once again, the exception, having worked in Tuszynski’s lab for about two years now.

“Pouya exhibits a passion and drive to perform research that is unusual,” Tuszynski said.

Currently, he is working with graduate student Edmund Hollis on a project to drive brain cells to grow new connections after a spinal cord injury. The goal is to use sophisticated genetic engineering to get the cell to enter a new growth phase.

Jamshidi is a great example of what can happen in the world when societies and cultures engage in cross-cultural collaboration and show they can be open minded, said Tuszynski.

“He came here to explore an opportunity that was not available in Iran,” Tuszynski said. “And he made a transition from a life of music to a life of medicine.”

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