Combating chemical synthesis and advocacy | MIT News

Azin Saebi was born and raised in Iran and immigrated to the USA with her family at the age of 18 after graduating from high school. Saebi is now a fifth-year chemistry graduate student and never intended to stay on; She initially expected to return to Iran to attend university. With this in mind, when she left for the US, she had only packed a bag with enough belongings for a few months and even booked a return flight.

However, her plans changed when she realized the opportunities available to her at American colleges and that the best way to improve her English was to stay in the US as she didn’t take the SAT or those for it She attended a traditional four-year college and enrolled in community college with plans to major in biology and neuroscience before transferring to UCLA.

At community college, Saebi discovered that she loved her undergraduate chemistry classes, so she joined an inorganic chemistry lab. “I really clicked more with the day-to-day lab experiments in chemistry than in biology. It was fun and exciting how I could take Material A and Material B, mix them together in a controlled manner and get this new molecule,” she says. “Biology seemed more like a black box to her. With chemistry, I could check progress at every step along the way.”

At MIT, Saebi works at the intersection of chemistry and biology, developing novel strategies for protein synthesis and protein conjugation. Ultimately, these strategies have potential applications as antimicrobial compounds. In addition to her academic activities, she has dedicated her time to advocating for diversity and inclusion initiatives and making sure students in the chemistry department feel supported and heard.

Ignite a “fire of chemistry”.

When she first started at Saddleback Community College, Saebi initially decided to pursue a neuroscience degree with aspirations of becoming a doctor — a path influenced by Grey’s Anatomy, she jokes. Studying organic chemistry also aroused interest in the interface between chemistry and biology. A biochemistry course at UCLA further cemented that passion, and she found that she excelled at the subject. “It was pretty obvious that among neuroscience majors [my reaction] into the class was unusual as it was widely considered a fairly irrelevant class for our core studies,” she says.

Saebi decided to double major in neuroscience and biochemistry. An inspirational professor, Alexander Spokonyny, encouraged her to join his inorganic chemistry laboratory. “He was the person who ignited this fire of chemistry in me,” she says. Under his guidance, she synthesized small molecule inhibitors to study cocaine addiction.

By the fall of senior year, Saebi knew she “wanted to pursue this research thing” and that her interest in medicine had taken a back seat. She decided to enroll in UCLA’s 4+1 program to pursue a master’s degree in biochemistry before applying to graduate programs in chemistry.

Unleashing novel proteins and ‘inner nerds’

When Saebi was admitted to MIT, she was determined to seize the opportunity. “Growing up in Iran, I never thought I would have the opportunity to go to a world-renowned university like MIT,” she says. During the chemistry department’s visiting weekend, when admitted students are invited to come on campus, she noted that the students here “actually looked like me” in terms of the science they loved and the activities they participated in were involved.

Ever since she began her PhD, Saebi’s goal has been to transition from organic chemistry to chemical biology. “Although I loved doing organic chemistry, I really wanted to do something with direct applications,” she says. With this in mind, she decided to join forces with the labs of chemistry professor Bradley Pentelute and Stephen Buchwald, the Camille Dreyfus professor of chemistry. That Laboratory Buchwald focuses more on the methods of organic chemistry, while the Pentelute Laboratory focuses on peptides and emphasizes biological applications. “I really enjoyed making molecules, but I also knew that that alone would not satisfy me in the five years of my PhD,” explains Saebi. “I had to make sure I was doing something that I could apply in the biotech industry or in human health.”

The overarching theme of Saebi’s work is the development of novel chemical tools to modify biomolecules, particularly proteins. Her research has developed in three distinct phases. First, she investigated a novel bioconjugation strategy, a chemical technique used to couple two proteins together. She then worked on a method for synthesizing proteins by chemically ligating amino acids, relying on chemical techniques to join the amino acids together instead of using biological protein synthesis machines. Recently, Saebi has combined these two tools, bioconjugation and chemical protein synthesis, to create antimicrobial compounds that specifically target and destroy pseudomonads, a bacterium that can cause serious infections in hospital patients.

Outside the lab, Saebi has served as a teaching assistant for Course 5.07 (Introduction to Biological Chemistry). “It turned into a fun experience of helping [undergraduate] Students unleash their inner nerd,” notes Saebi. “Having really enjoyed my biochemistry class at UCLA, I was keen to make sure my students had the same experience.” She had to overcome her fear that the students wouldn’t understand her explanations, since English is her second language. Despite initial concerns, Saebi won the Department of Chemistry Outstanding Teaching Award in 2018. For her, it was “the icing on the cake” of a rewarding teaching experience.

Inspiration for high school graduates

Over the past two years, as a member of the chemistry department, Saebi has grown into an advocate for diversity, inclusion, and speaking up about challenges within MIT Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee (DEIC) and Co-President of women+ in chemistry (WIC+). Over time, Saebi has realized that one of her personal strengths is communicating the needs of students, a skill she has utilized in these leadership roles.

“Graduate school is tough and nothing will make it a breezy experience because science is inherently difficult. But there are things that can make grad school a little bit easier and more enjoyable. … Often we have the attitude that just because others have suffered before us, we’re just going to suffer, and that’s a problem,” she says. Saebi isn’t content with just suffering; Instead, she is determined to be the spark for change.

She is very proud of the holistic review of graduate admissions practices designed by DEIC and implemented this year in chemistry admissions. The new practices evaluate candidates based on the opportunities available to them and their growth potential and achievements.

She also serves with resources to relieve friction and stress in the chemistry department (ChemREFS), which offers students the opportunity to talk about their problems confidentially and to receive support. Learning about her peers’ struggles has influenced her role at DEIC, she says. “ChemREFS helps me to ensure that I really represent the student body and the diversity of voices and perspectives.”

As she nears her graduation, Saebi has been thinking about her next steps. She wants to continue solving human health problems and understands that translating scientific research into new treatments for patients can be a challenging and lengthy process. “I want to be in a place where I can see more directly the impact of my work on patient lives and healthcare delivery, and I’m grateful that my PhD at MIT has opened so many doors for me to explore science beyond the academic exploring the world,” she says.

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