Sheida Hayati was only 5 when her father left their home in 1980 and went to fight in the war between Iraq and Iran. Two years later – after being on the front line – the army officer came home to Tehran a broken man.
The 35-year-old father of four was paranoid, heard voices and saw things that weren’t there. “I watched my father suffering every day,” said Hayati, who became an American citizen three years ago. “He was the first love of my life and there was nothing I could do.”
The Rutgers doctoral student may not have been able to help her father, who suffered with a severe form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for 30 years until he died in 2011. But Hayati has made it her life’s mission to use scientific data to try and find answers for incurable diseases that continue to take the lives of millions of people each year and wreak havoc on the families they leave behind.
“I think this need goes all the way back to my childhood,” said Hayati who is working toward her Ph.D. in Biomedical Informatics in the Rutgers School of Health Professions, an interdisciplinary field that combines computer science and medicine in order to find treatment and cures by computationally analyzing available scientific and clinical data.
“At the time nobody in my family or in the medical field in Iran knew what was wrong with my father or how to help him,” she said. “As a child, it was devastating.”
Hayati’s father’s illness left her thinking that she might go to medical school and become a physician. She was an exceptional student, aced math and physics in school and was encouraged by her teachers to either become an engineer or a doctor.
But Hayati wanted answers and discovered that research was her passion. She studied clinical laboratory sciences in Iran and graduated with the highest honors from Iran University of Medical Sciences, known for training prominent graduates in medicine and allied sciences. After graduating, Hayati managed a hematology laboratory in Iran for five years before she met her husband, an American citizen, who was visiting relatives in Iran.
When Hayati decided to move to the United States and get married, she entered the country on a K-1 Fiancée Visa. She had never been to the United States, and although 60 percent of women in Iran are educated, life here is much different.
“You come here and learn about the multi-cultural aspects of this society, and the fact that there is no limit in advancing your goal and turning your dreams into reality.” said Hayati whose mother and three siblings still live in Iran.
After graduating from a master’s degree program in biotechnology at William Paterson University, Hayati decided to fulfill her dream of finding treatments and cures for diseases like the one that tore her family apart and enrolled in the doctorate program at Rutgers.
Her goal as a scientist is to collaborate with other researchers to find a cure for cancer, in large part, because of the impact it has on young children whose parents get cancer and the data that is available to study.
“Considering the 20 percent chance of being diagnosed with cancer at age 20-55, many young children will experience a distressing time that might influence their entire life,” Hayati said.
Working in the laboratory of Antonina Mitrofanova, a professor of Biomedical and Health Informatics at the Rutgers School of Health Professions, Hayati will begin a three-month internship at the National Institutes of Health in Washington D.C. in May. There she will analyze data from a clinical trial and try to unlock the riddle of what might predispose one leukemia patient to benefit from immunotherapy, while another patient doesn’t. It’s a big question for every doctor in cancer research, she said.
“As I grew up, the pain of seeing my father in so much suffering has stayed with me,” said Hayati. “I would like to help prevent that from happening to other children.”