Interview with Faezeh Marzbanrad

Biomedical engineer talks about problem-solving, the importance of monitoring foetal cardiac health and why no one has got it quite right on STEM education for women

March 17, 2022
Faezeh Marzbanrad

Faezeh Marzbanrad is lecturer in electrical and computer systems engineering at Monash University in Melbourne. In December she won a state-government-funded Victoria fellowship to pursue her international research into telehealth systems for the early detection of life-threatening conditions among infants and unborn babies in the world’s poorest regions.

When and where were you born?
Shiraz, in south-western Iran, in 1985.

How has that shaped who you are?
Being born in Iran in that situation – during the war with Iraq, after the revolution – and in that society has pretty much shaped me. With the growth in population, there was a lot of competition for university. Girls were especially motivated to prove themselves because of the traditional inequality in society. I was lucky to be in a selective school, surrounded by girls who were determined to learn and pursue higher education. When I am in contact now with my old classmates and friends, it’s great to see how well they’re doing in their careers.

Your mother is a medical specialist and academic. Are you following in her footsteps?
My mum is my role model. She has always had so much empathy. As a child, when I wanted her to stay home during school holidays, she explained about patients from remote regions waiting to get their pathology results and start treatment. She always spent quality time with me, but I could see that helping patients was her priority. As an academic, she was always working hard to train the next generation of specialists – preparing seminars and courses with so much passion. It prepared me for my own academic journey. But my father, an electrical engineer, maybe had even more influence. I would see him bringing home electronic boards and working on them. Until he solved that problem, he couldn’t sleep. If you asked him what that board did, he could explain with words that even a child could understand and with so much passion that it was impossible for me to not fall in love with electronics. I loved that problem-solving and creativity which wasn’t quite there in medicine. I was convinced that this was exactly what I wanted to pursue, but with the core value of trying to help people. I’m a biomedical engineer today. It’s a combination of what I learned from both parents.

Your doctorate focused on a new way to assess fetal cardiac health. Why is that important?
Cardiovascular parameters are really important if we want to identify health risks. We can also use them to evaluate fetal development and detect growth abnormalities. Globally, around 18 of every 1,000 babies die during late pregnancy and birth, and 98 per cent of those deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. When we develop a solution, it must be applicable to those countries. At Melbourne I applied for a scholarship to travel to the University of Oxford, Georgia Tech and Emory University to work with a group aiming to develop a prenatal screening method for lower-resource settings. We have been collaborating since then. The technology is now in trial in rural Guatemala – a very affordable device, under $20 (£15), which can be used by non-experts. The app is pictorial. Traditional midwives who may not be able to read or write can use it to monitor the development and health of the baby, and if any risk is identified, the mother is referred to the closest clinic for assessment.

Iranian women undertake higher STEM study at equal or higher rates than men. Why?
Higher education is highly valued even by traditional families in Iran. Engineering, medicine and dentistry are really prestigious pathways and there are lots of career opportunities in engineering. For girls trying to earn the social status they deserve, studying STEM and in particular engineering is a way to empower themselves and be financially independent.

What can countries like Australia, where women are underrepresented in STEM, learn from this?
The solutions there are not transferable here. I’m glad that girls here don’t have to go through the pressure of the huge competition in Iran; it’s all so stressful. I can’t say that situation was ideal, and I can’t say that the situation here is ideal. But what I can say is that breaking gender stereotypes is important and STEM should be promoted to girls even in early education and primary schools.

What do you like about academic work?
I really love the flexibility and freedom to choose what urgent problems I want to work on. I want to build my own team, and that’s something I can do in academia – build a team with fresh, creative minds. I’m lucky to work with students who are really thinking outside the box. My mum always says that at university, you never get old because you interact with young people on a day-to-day basis.

What don’t you like about academic work?
It’s sometimes frustrating to see students’ lack of interest. There are still students who are really enthusiastic about engineering, but – probably because of Covid – the lack of motivation to learn has been a bit concerning. Also for academics, especially young academics, it’s very difficult to switch off and take leave, especially parental leave, which is typically around one year. It’s impossible to put your research on hold for that long. During Covid, when childcare was closed, I had to record lectures overnight when my daughter was sleeping. That’s not something you have to do in industry, I suppose.

If you were universities minister for a day, what would you do?
I would look for strategies and frameworks to improve cultural diversity in academia, because that’s something that really needs more work. There have been good efforts in improving gender diversity and inclusion. but we need more cultural diversity. It’s not possible to change these things in one day, by offering scholarships or something like that. It requires longer-term planning.


CV

2007: BSc, Shiraz University

2010: MSc, Shiraz University

2010-2011: Engineer, Fars Scout Industrial Company, Shiraz

2012-2016: PhD, University of Melbourne

2015: visiting researcher, University of Oxford, Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology

2016 to present: research fellow and lecturer, Monash University

2016 to present: Review editor and guest associate editor, Frontiers in Physiology and Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology

2018 to present: International advisory board member, Physiological Measurement


Appointments

Geraint Rees has been appointed vice-provost (research, innovation and global engagement) at UCL. Currently dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences and pro-provost (academic planning), Professor Rees will take on his new role in May, succeeding David Price, who is stepping down as vice-provost after 15 years to return to full-time research. The professor of cognitive neurology said it was a “great privilege” to lead UCL’s research portfolio “on the next important stage of our development as a global university, animated by public purpose and working at the boundaries of academic endeavour”. UCL has also promoted executive director of media and public affairs Kirsty Walker to vice-president (external engagement).

Anne-Marie Kilday will be the next vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton. She will succeed Nick Petford at Northampton in August after spending 22 years at Oxford Brookes University, presently as pro vice-chancellor for student experience and university community and professor of criminal history. Mark Mulcahey, chair of Northampton’s governors, hailed Professor Kilday as “a highly accomplished educator and researcher” who was dedicated “to the ideals of using higher education as a catalyst for positive social impact”.

Aron O’Cass has been appointed dean of La Trobe Business School, part of Melbourne-based La Trobe University. He was previously head of the department of marketing at Macquarie University.

Sanjiv Ahluwalia is the new head of the School of Medicine at Anglia Ruskin University. Previously he was regional postgraduate dean for London at Health Education England.

Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, professor of political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, has been named director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies in the institution’s Keough School of Global Affairs.

Award-winning author Belinda McKeon is joining Maynooth University as associate professor in creative writing.

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