Q&A with Zahra Ayati

20 May 2021

What drew you into the research field of complementary and traditional medicine?

After completing my pharmacy doctorate, I worked as a pharmacist and also a technical manager for a pharmaceutical laboratory in Iran. During this time, I was involved in projects on natural medicines and this developed my interest in the field, and specifically in Traditional Persian Medicine. I also felt that there was a need to have more safe and effective complementary medicines to use in practice, and decided that this was an area that I would like to work in.

What do you love about research?

The impact that research has on the scientific and wider community can have such a positive influence on people’s lives. I also love bringing the traditions of ancient people into current scientific research. As a career, I am working with amazing scientists from diverse backgrounds at an international level and building a strong network of collaborators for the future.

As an international Visiting Scholar, what brought you to NICM HRI and Australia?

While undertaking my PhD in Iran with Mashhad University of Medical Sciences (MUMS), I received a scholarship for being the top student for an international collaboration in the study of complementary medicines. Having had previous experiences in Australia, I liked Australia’s multiculturalism, friendly people, and natural environment, so it was my first choice. I was attracted to NICM HRI as it is the leader in its field with very comprehensive research in complementary medicines. My stay at NICM HRI, led to several joint projects and publications between my home university (MUMS) and NICM HRI in different areas. Moreover, it initiated a collaborative relationship between Tehran University of Medical Sciences (TUMS) and NICM HRI. TUMS is one of Iran's top research universities and medical centres.

What have you learned from this experience? What is your career plan in the next 3-5 years?

Altogether, this has been a cherished part of my research life. I learned more skills in the field of research on herbal medicines for mind and brain disorders, but also improved my knowledge in some other areas of complementary medicine, such as mind-body treatments.

Also, this experience helped to expand my network in Australia and some other countries as well. I had the opportunity to meet highly regarded researchers from all around the world. We exchanged our knowledge and cultural views and now I am pleased to have very good friends from different backgrounds. I would like to take the opportunity to thank my supervisor, Professor Dennis Chang, for his kind support and for involving me in his valuable research during my stay.

My plan is to continue my research on complementary medicines, both at the academic and industrial level, to design effective and safe medications by using pharmaceutical sciences. I would also like to continue my international research collaboration by bringing Traditional Persian Medicine and other traditional medicines into preclinical and clinical practice.

What are you currently working on?

I have been working on complementary medicines used to prevent and treat neurocognitive conditions and mental health disorders. The focus of this is a clinical trial on a Chinese herbal medicine, Sailuotong (SLT), for vascular dementia. For this project I have been researching and writing investigative summaries and undertaking operational aspects related to patients and GP liaison.

Last year I worked on studies and publications looking at the effect of saffron for mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease(opens in a new window); and two other publications on Alzheimer’s disease, “10 Persian Herbal Medicines used for Brain Health",(opens in a new window) and “Advances in Treatment of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and Dementia”(opens in a new window).

I am also nearing completion of my PhD. My project involved a practical component, to investigate a novel formulation of the herbal medicine rosehip; and a theoretical component. This was to undertake an academic revision of a Traditional Persian Medicine encyclopedia with the view to it being used as a reference for researchers.

What has been the most rewarding research project in your career so far?

As part of my Pharmacy Doctorate I undertook a Phase I clinical trial of crocin, a major component of saffron, to study its safety profile for healthy participants. I found it rewarding as at the time there hadn’t been any clinical trials completed on crocin’s safety. Completing this project and determining its safety paved the way for other clinical trials to follow.

What has been the best career advice you’ve ever received?

One of my past supervisors advised that having focus and courage in research are the most important elements to overcome barriers. These words have stuck in my mind, and I find this is also good life advice too.

Do you think it’s harder being a woman in science?

Being a woman does provide challenges in juggling a research career with a personal life and family responsibilities. I think it’s important to have really good planning and prioritisation in order to try to overcome these difficulties.

I schedule in time blocks for research activities, my studies, my family and children, exercise and hobbies. I try to set priorities but I find that being open-minded and flexible definitely helps manage competing responsibilities.