UCI News

Heart on the brain

Out of love for her family, Ninaz Valisharifabad studies how the heart and brain function together

by Dhanika Pineada, UCI | February 8, 2022
Heart on the brain
Ninaz Valisharifabad’s interest in BME, especially in cardiovascular health and neuroscience, stems from medical experiences within her family and a wish to do more. Ninaz Valisharifabad

Ninaz Valisharifabad has fallen in love with the heart and the brain.

A biomedical engineering graduate student at UCI, Valisharifabad is continuing her studies after graduating from UCI’s undergraduate BME program in 2020. Her main interest is the way in which the heart and brain function together.

She works with Arash Kheradvar, a professor of BME, whose research focuses on cardiovascular engineering – research interests that align strongly with Valisharifabad’s.

“I love it, honestly,” Valisharifabad says. “I think if we figure out how these two functions, then we can solve a lot of problems with these two, it’s going to be really helpful because, right now, the understanding is limited.”

She is the recipient of the 2021 Maxine E. Nevin Leider Scholarship in the Environmental Leaders category. The Leider scholarships are endowed by Maxine E. Nevin Leider, who donated over $3 million to UCI for both undergraduate and graduate scholarships.

“The Maxine E. Nevin Leider Scholarship will help me to focus on my career and conduct research and develop new ways to help people,” she says. “It has encouraged me to continue my education, help others and give back to the community.”

Her interest in BME, especially in cardiovascular health and neuroscience, stems from medical experiences within her family and a wish to do more.

Valisharifabad moved with her family from Iran to the U.S. in May 2014, a week before she turned 18. Before the move, her father practiced medicine in Iran. Valisharfibad recalls spending much of her adolescence in his office, helping him by talking to patients and gathering data.

Her interest in the engineering part of BME comes from her grandfather, who passed away three years ago after a long fight against the aftermath of a surgery gone wrong.

“He didn’t have much feeling in both of his legs.” she says.

One surgeon diagnosed the issue as a hemangioma, a type of benign tumor of blood vessels, that pushed on a section of his spine. They injected a kind of glue into the hemangioma to eliminate it. However, the glue blocked the hemangioma and arteries, which caused his spine to not function properly. Her grandfather immediately lost the ability to walk, and he later had problem’s breathing.

“And so that was the time I said, ‘I wish I could do something for him,’” Valisharifabad recalls. “He had the ability to talk, smile, laugh, all as usual. But he couldn’t walk anymore, and he quickly lost his confidence and later on become depressed.”

Valisharifabad was saddened by this lack of confidence and depression, and she decided to do something. In her time as an undergraduate at UCI, she took a BME course with assistant professor of BME, Christine King. During the course, they built a wheelchair designed to help developing countries access a cheaper wheelchair with more functionality.

A major influence for her decision to transfer into UCI from Irvine Valley College was her proximity to family. She also chose UCI for the research opportunities and resources she knew she’d have access to.

The first lab she joined in her first year as a transfer student was with associate professor of BME, Beth Lopour. The lab work focused on epilepsy, and Valisharifabad looked at the project as an interaction between the heart and brain.

She’s enjoyed her UCI experience so much that she influenced her younger brother, current undergraduate mechanical engineering major Khashayar Valisharifabad, to attend UCI as well.

“He is the most fun and enjoyable part of my life. Honestly, I’m so glad to have him here,” she says.

At 18, with English as a third language, Valisharifabad remembers attending her brother’s school meetings as his guardian when they first moved to the U.S. She still recalls the difficulty of starting a new life in a different country, but she also recalls the kindness many have shown her, and the support her family has always provided.

“In Persian culture, families are very important to us,” she says. “I mean, it’s true for everyone, but this has something that has always lived in this family. I love them a lot.”

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