• Research

    Now unstuck, the world is her oyster

Sara Ranjbar, Ph.D., has spent the last nine years unlearning what she’d practiced her whole life. Dr. Ranjbar is from Iran and learned from an early age to not speak up, challenge others or ask too many questions. As a graduate of one of the top engineering schools in Iran and working to implement a surgical navigation system for skull-based surgeries, Dr. Ranjbar concluded that cultural constraint wasn’t helpful for advancing fast-paced science.

“I was painfully aware that I had ideas to contribute, and not speaking up was impeding my progress,” she says. “Every time I didn’t speak up, I felt bad and ended up in a negative confidence loop. I was stuck and had a vague sense of being lost and invisible. I needed to be brave enough to proceed in a different way.”

A different way

Sara Ranjbar, Ph.D.

Dr. Ranjbar moved to the U.S. in 2012 and enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Arizona State University. Her thesis showed that using quantitative image analysis and machine learning can help improve the specificity of breast cancer diagnosis, predict HPV status in head and neck tumors, differentiate benign and malignant head and neck tumors, and stage cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease.

In 2018 she joined the Mathematical Neuro-Oncology Laboratory at Mayo Clinic in Arizona to train in neuroimaging and neurooncology under the supervision of Kristin Swanson, Ph.D., Department of Neurologic Surgery and the Vasek and Anna Maria Polak Professor of Cancer Research, who has built a career around designing mathematical approaches for personalized glioblastoma (GBM) treatment.

While artificial intelligence (AI) is male-dominated, Dr. Swanson’s lab is not. “It’s the first time I’ve had a woman mentor and majority women group,” says Dr. Ranjbar. “Seeing how women support each other, present research in a convincing way and speak up freely has helped me do the same and take more leadership roles. I recently agreed to present at four conferences without feeling nervous about it. I don’t feel stuck anymore.”

Dr. Swanson says it’s common for women scientists to be reluctant to speak up. “As a woman leader at Mayo Clinic, I create a culture where everyone is emboldened to speak and know their voice is valuable and heard. Dr. Ranjbar has had a remarkable path and demonstrated resilience while excelling in her pursuit of a career in science.”

A sweet reward

Overcoming this cultural burden has made Dr. Ranjbar’s receipt of the 2021 Mayo Clinic Alumni Association Edward C. Kendall Award for Meritorious Research even sweeter.

“I’m so honored and happy that Mayo Clinic sees value in my research,” she says. “I’m a first-generation college student, and my mom is so excited. When I was young and she figured out that I was good at math, she encouraged me. She’s my biggest supporter; I’m pretty sure she’s telling everyone she knows in Iran about the Kendall Award.”

The world of AI is hungry for expertise and intuition like hers. The world is her oyster

Kristin Swanson, Ph.D.

Dr. Ranjbar’s work with GBM focuses on MRI-based machine learning models. She has built models that characterize MRI types, extract brain tissue from MRI, outline tumor extent, identify cystic GBMs, estimate missing MRI images for patients and noninvasively predict tissue heterogeneity across entire tumors. Her efforts have resulted in two accepted first-author papers, another submitted and another in preparation; two first-author, two second-author and five co-author published abstracts; and one co-author paper submitted and one in preparation. Her long-term goal is to be a scientific leader working at the cross-section of imaging and AI at a high-profile research institute.

A rare intuition

Dr. Swanson has no doubt her protégé will accomplish that goal. “Dr. Ranjbar wants to affect positive change for patients and is an exceptionally intuitive researcher. She has a natural gift for having insights into the data before it reveals itself. Rather than just plot out the data without deep understanding of what it means, she peels away the layers of noise, hears the signal and picks out the important part that will be useful to the patient. This is a rare quality. In 20 years of mentoring students, I find Dr. Ranjbar to be one of the most persistent and effective researchers I have
trained. The world of AI is hungry for expertise and intuition like hers. The world is her oyster.”

This article was originally published in Mayo Clinic Alumni Magazine.

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