By Jean Chen
As part of the OHBM International Outreach effort, we found about the experiences of Iranian trainees. Many of us in brain imaging have met and worked with Iranian trainees, who outnumber trainees from most other Middle-East countries. By hearing the trainees’ stories, we get a snapshot of the circumstances behind their decision to leave Iran as well as their aspirations in foreign lands. In this post, we speak to current and former trainees, including:
Jean Chen (JC): How much exposure to brain-mapping research did you have as undergraduate students in Iran?
Aras Kayvanrad (AK): I did not have much exposure to brain mapping research as an undergrad student. I completed my undergrad more than 10 years ago and at the time there was little brain-mapping research in the country. However, things have changed now and there are several research groups working in the area of brain-mapping. There are more opportunities for undergrad students to learn about brain mapping research through talks, workshops, seminars, etc.
Sana Nezhad (SN): During my undergrad in Electrical Engineering we had a course called " the Application of Electronics in Medicine". It was in that course that I received my first academic exposure to brain-mapping research, which actually motivated me to do a Masters in Bioelectronic Engineering in the University of Tehran. There we had one year of coursework, which exposed me to the use of EEG, MRI and CT for brain mapping. I also got to know about quantitative methods of analysing the data we acquire using these methods. For the second year of my Masters I was required to complete a research project on MRI data acquisition, and although my project was focused on body imaging, I had classmates doing fMRI and MRI projects on the brain. As a result of group meetings, I learned about their research.
Mahdi Khajehim (MK): My personal exposure to brain-mapping only started when I took the “introduction to biomedical engineering” course as an undergraduate student and for the first time got familiar with some methods like MRI and fMRI. However, I think as a result of multiple government-supported programs and increased interest to brain-mapping, this pattern has already started to change. Nowadays, undergraduate students in Iran have a much better opportunities to get familiar with this field through talks, workshops and summer schools, such as the Iranian Summer School of Cogntive Neuroscience. These are hosted by many different universities and institutions.
Arman Eshaghi (AE): During my undergraduate studies (Tehran University of Medical Sciences), I worked on at least two different projects in which we used advanced neuroimaging methods (DTI and fMRI) for patients with multiple sclerosis and neuromyelitis optica. My work was conducted with Professor Mohammadali Sahraian at the Sina Multiple Sclerosis Research Centre, which is affiliated with the Tehran University of Medical Sciences. I was also in active collaboration with UCL Institute of Neurology in London working with Prof. Olga Ciccarelli.
Mostafa Berangi (MB): During my undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering, I took some courses in Biomedical Engineering, and they really interested me. As I became familiar with the multiple aspects of Biomedical Engineering, I was particularly interested in the field of MRI. That is the main reason for my decision to pursue brain imaging for my graduate degree.
JC: How would you describe the Iranian brain-mapping landscape? Are there major research programs or meetings that you were aware of as an Iranian student?
AK: Not as a student -- as I mentioned at the time I did my undergrad, there was not much brain mapping research going on. However, the growth of brain-mapping research has accelerated in recent years, and several research bodies have been established recently providing financial and/or technical support to researchers in this area, which can potentially further facilitate and expand brain mapping research in the country. Most notably, the Cognitive Sciences and Technologies Council (COGC) provides funding for brain-mapping research through a variety of research grants. Moreover, the recently-established National Brain Mapping Laboratory (NBML), equipped with state-of-the-art scanners, has further paved the way for brain mapping research in the country.
SN: There are several brain mapping groups specializing in advanced quantitative analysis of brain-imaging data generated through different modalities. I get the sense that In Iran there is a shortage of data-acquisition accessibility due to limited resources, however most active research groups overcome this problem through collaborations with universities abroad. For example, I had collaborations with a cancer centre based in the UK and received half of my data from there. This lack of imaging resources drives the research towards quantification methods rather than data acquisition approaches.
MK: In my perspective, the Iranian brain-mapping field has already started to grow at a promising pace. Thanks to increased government support through funding agencies like the Cognitive Science and Technologies Council (CSTC) and greater availability of required infrastructure that is an essential part of this field, there is now a rising interest to do research in brain-mapping. Moreover, some newly established institutions like the National Brain Mapping Laboratory (NBML) in conjunction with some older ones like the School of Cognitive Science are also playing a crucial role in expanding the field among the Iranian researchers and I personally benefited a lot from attending educational events hosted by these institutions. It all adds up to expect an even better future for this field in Iran.
AE: There have been active institutes working on animal neuroimaging (in addition to human) located in Tehran that are affiliated with top Iranian universities, including the Institute for Fundamental Physics and the Institute for Cognitive Science Studies. There are new centres such as the National Brain Mapping Laboratory, which did not exist when I left Iran in 2014. There are also groups working inside university hospitals including the Neuroimaging and Analysis Group. Therefore, in my opinion Iran can have a bright future in science and in particular neuroimaging in the Middle East.
MB: In Iran, the best students choose to go to Sharif University, University of Tehran, Amirkabir University of Technology, Iran University of Science and Technology, Khaje Nasir University and Shahid Beheshti Medical University (in that order). In terms of the field of brain mapping, from my perspective, the University of Tehran and Amirkabir University are the top institutions. I feel that these institutions have the largest and strongest faculties, and this quality is important for graduate students.
JC: For those of you abroad, what was your main motive for leaving Iran to pursue further training? For those in Iran, do you have plans to leave Iran for additional studies?
AK: I left Iran after my undergraduate degree. The reason was quite simple --- I left Iran to expand my horizons in a new environment doing cutting-edge research.
SN: My main motive was to have the opportunity to get more involved in MRI acquisition research, which is more feasible here in the UK. Also, I cannot rule out being adventurous and wanting to experience a different cultural environment!
MK: I imagine on one hand there are still some aspects of brain-mapping research that remained mostly untouched in Iran and those happen to be in the realm that I was mostly interested about and as such, leaving Iran made sense as there was not much expertise or experience available in Iran. On the other hand, in my opinion, one other thing still missing in Iran is the limited extent of the international collaboration that helps to accelerate the development and increase the quality of the brain-mapping in Iran. These two factors were my main motivations to go abroad for Ph.D. study.
AE: My main intention for leaving Iran was to expand my skill base in using larger databases, and in particular my quantitative skills. Moreover, working in a place such as the UCL Institute of Neurology, which is home to many renowned neurologists and neuroscientists, has enabled me to form more ambitious research plans with access to a wide range of patient populations.
MB: I would like to study in a foreign country, but it comes down to a personal decision, so I have not yet made up my mind. Certainly, most of our students would like to study abroad, and many of my labmates have left to pursue their PhDs. Our professors do not try to retain us. They actually encourage us to explore our options.
JC: How would you describe the career prospects of a highly trained neuroimaging researcher in Iran?
AK: With more groups working on neuroimaging and the availability of research funding and imaging facilities, the prospects seems very promising. In Iran many of the talented students are interested in engineering, in general, and medical imaging, in particular, which is an invaluable asset to principal investigators in these fields. Nevertheless, in spite of the recent progress, access to funding and imaging facilities is still very limited. Moreover, there is limited collaborative research between individual groups and between institutions. I hope the establishment of the new national research bodies, such as the NBML, will lead to collaborative research initiatives between research groups and institutions across the country.
SN: I would think a researcher with a good international network, particularly with countries with a strong neuroimaging landscape, can expect a promising future.
MK: I think for such an individual the available job positions could be in the academia or government-funded research institutions, however, in the private sector, there is only a limited range of options available. I imagine there would be several suitable faculty or research positions available in the capital city (Tehran), but not much so for the rest of the country. For the private research-based companies to grow and create more job positions in this field, there is still a lot that needs to be done.
AE: Compared to the developed world, there are very limited funding opportunities in a developing country like Iran. As a result, many students may prefer to leave the country to expand their skill base. However, despite these limitations, there has been an upward trajectory as is evident by the construction of new neuroimaging centres and availabilities of graduate (PhD) level university programme dedicated to neuroimaging.
MB: Medical Imaging is still a very new field in Iran, and frankly there are not that many jobs in this field, especially for PhD graduates.
Postamble (JC): As in any research community, trainees are the future of Iranian brain-mapping research. The trainees that you met here are some of the brightest among Iranian students; they are expanding their horizons voraciously and have ambitious future plans. Irrespective of their current locations, these trainees show their love of their home country and are obviously excited by the recent developments in the Iranian research arena. I have come to learn that > 40% of Electrical Engineering students as well as > 50% of Medical Physics students at the University of Tehran are women, numbers that exceed those of most western programs. We look forward to the transition of these trainees into independent scientists.
Although there is great need for brain-mapping expertise, there are currently few positions in Iranian universities for trainees, even those with often highly prestigious foreign training. In this regard, I have come to learn that the government has established paid postdoctoral fellowships (up to 2 years) for those returning to Iran and in search of faculty positions. In parallel, there are government programs that encourage highly-qualified individuals to return to Iran to establish tech companies, through both cash rewards (up to $40,000 USD) and low-interest (close to 0%) loans. These mechanisms will likely create jobs for future trainees in brain imaging.
We wish these trainees the best, and hope the OHBM community will be able to enhance outreach to those working and living in Iran as well.