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Fariba Sabzi: Two PhDs and a black belt
September 15, 2020
Fariba Sabzi was 18 years old, when she had to choose between a career as a professional tae kwon do athlete and a career as a scientist. She didn’t have to think twice. Even though tae kwon do played a significant role in her life and she herself played a major role in the development of the sport in her home city of Tabriz in Iran, Fariba always knew that she was going to be a scientist. “Tae kwon do is my pleasure, but science is my future”, the PhD student at Jacobs University Bremen said to her young self, many years ago.
As a nine-year-old, Fariba started training martial arts with her brother, who was a karate coach. A few years later, she was ready to join a gym to train tae kwon do. “This was not common for Iranian women at the time, back in the eighties”, says Fariba. When she eventually joined a female training group, the sessions had to take place unofficially. “My coach was the first woman to do tae kwon do in my home city, Tabriz. She was secretly being trained by a man and then came to our gym and taught us girls what she had learnt”, remembers Fariba, who is from the Iranian region Azerbaijan in the north-west of the country.
“Back then, I was thinking I might someday want to work at my parents’ company in the food industry”, she recollects. “So, while I was representing tae kwon do in my country, I was also working toward getting accepted for a science major”. When she received admission to the University of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, it was time for her to make a decision. “I had to choose between tae kwon do and my studies. I had worked so hard to get accepted for that major – and I knew that I wanted to study”, she explains her decision to go for her bachelor’s degree in Engineering Chemistry. Being the only woman in a class of men studying one of the most competitive majors in Iran, it was not always easy for Fariba to be accepted.
But she never regretted her decision. Later on, she attended the University of Teheran, where the young scientist obtained her Master’s degree in Biotechnology and then got accepted to the highly competitive PhD Program in Nanobiotechnology Engineering Chemistry with a research focus on blood cancer. Of the 10 applicants accepted to the program, she was one of three women.
In 2015, an internship at the TU Munich led her to Germany and the prospect of doing another PhD eventually brought her to the north of Germany, namely Hamburg.
However, the Irian woman was struggling. “I was living in a big city where I didn’t know anyone”. So, when a friend, who was doing her postdoc at Jacobs University, told her about the international and familiar atmosphere at the private university, Fariba decided to come to Bremen. Since then, she has been part of Professor Kuhnert’s research group in the department of Life Sciences & Chemistry with her research focus in analytical chemistry. In her dissertation, Fariba is looking to find new compounds that could be used in the pharmaceutical industry.
From the beginning, she has been living on the campus of the international university. “My time at Jacobs University has changed me. I found a home here”. Outside of the laboratories, Fariba likes to spend time with her fellow students and offer guidance. Two years ago, in addition to her PhD, she started working as a Resident Associate in one of the residential colleges on the university campus. In this position, she supports the students who live on campus, for example in cases of emergencies. “My time at Jacobs University has made me a stronger and more independent person – professionally and personally”.
Fariba hopes to graduate in the summer of 2021. Her aim is to continue her academic career– ideally in Bremen.
This text is part of the series "Faces of Jacobs", in which Jacobs University introduces students, alumni, professors and staff. Further episodes can be found at www.jacobs-university.de/faces.