Dr. Kiana Aran, courtesy of the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)
Dr. As a young woman in Iran, Kiana Aran made the choice to study electrical engineering. She didn’t know it at the time, but this would lead her to her true passion: biology.
It was also the decision that eventually led her to some major healthcare breakthroughs. By building a bridge between her chosen study and her true passion, Aran also managed to bridge the gap between electrical engineering and healthcare.
The result is new bio-integrated electronic platforms and the hope that we will soon be able to predict human diseases before they start.
It’s one of the many reasons why Dr. Aran is not only a scientist at the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), but also a successful biomedical entrepreneur. She is also a co-founder and chief scientific officer at Cardea Bio and a consultant at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
BioSpace sat down with Dr. Aran to discuss her life, her achievements and what it means to be a successful woman in science worldwide.
At the beginning
While she may not have envisioned herself as a biomedical engineer, Aran was always driven to succeed in the sciences. Her parents were both teachers and expected her to do well in school.
“The decision to become a scientist probably came of age because of my experiences in life,” she said.
“Growing up in Iran, education was very important to our families,” Aran said. “Iranian women are very well educated. If you are good at maths, exact sciences and physics in Iran, you are automatically expected to become an electrical engineer.”
Aran came to the United States at the age of 19 to study electrical engineering. She admits she wasn’t particularly thrilled about it.
With her drive to be the best, Aran continued to excel in her major despite her lack of all-encompassing enthusiasm for it. While she aspired to be one of the best students “of all time,” she didn’t spend much time thinking about how she’d like to apply her skills after school.
“Then I got to my Ph.D., where I really started using my electrical engineering, but for a biological application… I was an engineer who would become fascinated with biological sciences,” Aran said.
It was at this point, says Aran, that “everything came together.” She realized that electrical engineering could be applied to her true passion.
The Aran Lab and Biosensing
After joining KCI in 2017, Aran opened her lab at the school with the goal of integrating biology and technology using electronics.
Her work is divided into two parts: “In one half we develop a modern sensor model through integrated sensors. In the other half, we mainly use the detection technologies for age-related diseases, such as cancer and neurological disorders.”
What exactly does this mean? “We look at biology and nature, and we look at these biomolecules that have a very specific function. And then we investigate whether those functions are something we can use to design tools.”
A good example is CRISPR technology, which Aran says was “developed by nature in bacteria as their defense system against viruses.”
“If we can actually detect the result of (CRISPR’s) searches, we’ll have a nature-created tool that can detect diseases such as genetic diseases,” Aran explains. This is just one example of the research conducted by Aran’s lab.
Bridging the gap between technology and biology, Aran’s lab is also creating tools that can help fight diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS. Aran calls this “breaking down the silos” – dismantling a system where technology and biology advance separately and instead find ways to work together.
It also means breaking down silos in other areas, Aran said. She acknowledged that biometrics can be intimidating to potential users, especially older people who could benefit most from the technology.
Aran’s work will hopefully do more than create healthcare treatments. It will also hopefully change the way these treatments are marketed so that they are easily accepted and used by users.
About the future and empowerment of women
What’s next for Aran and her lab?
With her success at a young age as a winner of Clinical OMIC’s 10 under 40 Award and with her Iranian heritage, Aran is aware of how profound her achievements are for women in science around the world.
“When we talk about our responsibility as scientists to work together so that we can really make an impact on people’s lives or have an impact on people’s lives… gender and national boundaries really become irrelevant. When we talk about promoting women in science, it spreads on a global scale,” Aran said.
Aran acknowledged that the current political turmoil in Iran made this need for global aid even more important.
“With Iranian women and everything going on in Iran, I think it’s a different scenario because they’re fighting for their basic human rights.”
“Yes, I am an Iranian scientist, and I am an Iranian woman… I am proud to be part of that community. But then again, I think when we talk about science and its impact, borders actually become irrelevant. “
Aran eventually hopes to influence the way government, academia and the medical industry work together. She believes a rethink is needed so scientists don’t just develop a technology and let it languish without proper commercialization.
“They have to work together. You know, KGI has done a great job with that, and I think that’s why I’ve been able to really translate my technology into commercial applications. We need more of that.”
For now, Aran and her team will continue to break down silos so that technology and biology can work together to create better healthcare.