When Kianoush (Kia) Falahkheirkhah came to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 2016, he wasn’t too sure about America. “Growing up in Tehran, I was familiar with life in a big city surrounded by mountains. But here it was very different in a quiet college town in the middle of cornfields,” remembers Kia. “And people were putting pineapple on pizza! ‘What is that,’ I thought. It was so strange,” laughs Kia.

More worrying for him, though, was America’s political landscape and the associated stresses impacting international students. “It was very stressful for me and my fellow Iranians,” he recalls. “But the University was always very supportive of us in those uncertain times. I am so grateful for that.”

Seven years later, Kia is a postdoc researcher in Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) Director Rohit Bhargava’s Chemical Imaging and Structures Laboratory, and he couldn’t be happier. “I was accepted to four American universities – University of Southern California, Penn State, University of Maryland, and Illinois. My Iranian friends recommended Illinois; I chose well,” acknowledges Kia, who graduated in May 2023 with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. “When I was investigating my options for Ph.D. advisors, I received some advice to choose carefully because your 20s are a ‘golden time’ in life, and you don’t want to be miserable with your Ph.D. advisor. When I sat down with Rohit for an interview, we had an immediate connection, and seven years later, we still like each other,” says Kia with a characteristic smile. “I really like Rohit’s advisory style; he’s very results-oriented, which allows me the flexibility to work productively.”

So, how exactly did a boy from Tehran end up working as a cancer researcher? “If it were up to me, I would have become a musician,” admits Kia, an only child whose early world was quite small, walking five minutes to elementary school and ten minutes to high school. “I loved playing the guitar, writing music, and listening to music, but my parents saw art as something to do on the side, not a career,” remarks Kia. “My dad was a mechanical engineer at an automobile manufacturer, and he was big on teaching me math in the context of card games we would play together. In high school, I discovered I liked solving problems and began to see math and science as a possible path. Certainly, without my parents, I wouldn’t have chosen a career in engineering, but I’m glad I did,” he exclaims. As a chemical engineering student, Kia found himself interested in the computer applications of his field, which ultimately led him to the role he holds now as a postdoc researcher in Bhargava’s lab, where he is designing artificial intelligence (AI) models to support the team’s microscopy innovations for pathology.

“One thing I like about the cancer research we are doing is that you can feel the impact you are going to have. In five to ten years, our research will change how we look at pathology. I get to play a small part in that big change, and that makes me feel really good,” says Kia, who enjoys working in an interdisciplinary lab environment focused on improving cancer diagnosis methods. “I want to push forward our research to be transformational in healthcare and in low-resource hospitals. Many people lose their lives not because of cancer itself but because their diagnosis was inaccurate or comes too late. We are interested in advancing our research so that it has the potential to reach more people in everyday clinics.”

Kia wants to see more young scientists consider cancer research, specifically the applications of AI in the field of pathology. “Many aspects of pathology haven’t changed for 125 years. There is much room for improvement, and we need fresh minds to push forward this area of cancer research. If you want to have an impact in the world, consider cancer research,” offers Kia.

Editor’s note:

To learn more about Kia’s work in Bhargava’s lab, read the latest cancer research news on the CCIL website.

For more information about the Bhargava lab, visit the Chemical Imaging and Structures Laboratory website.

This story was written by Jonathan King, CCIL Communications Specialist.