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Alumni Excellence Awards: Rising Terp Award Winner Parinaz Fathi '15

Alumni Excellence Awards: Rising Terp Award Winner Parinaz Fathi '15

Parinaz Fathi '15

By Dilshad D. Ali

Developing microfluidic tissue-on-chip systems through immunoengineering. Studying how extracellular vesicles in bacterial cells communicate with human cells. This is the parlance that National Institutes of Health (NIH) independent research scholar Parinaz Fathi speaks with confidence.

The former mechanical engineering major (with an Honors College citation in the Gemstone program) is one of the youngest principal investigators in the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at NIH. She began in July 2022 as an independent research scholar working on nanotechnology and microfluidic models, specifically biological nanoparticles.

These are particles that cells secrete and use to talk to each other, Fathi explains. And microfluidic models are ones that work at a millimeter-to-micron scale, in which different kinds of cells are incorporated depending on what tissues are being modeled. These tissues are then used to study things, like the effects of different drugs on a cell or how fluid flow affects cell behavior.

Cells, whether mammalian or bacterial, produce their own nanoparticles that are used as a communication tool, Fathi says. “There are a lot of people studying this, but what I’m particularly interested in studying is the interaction of the extracellular vesicles in bacterial cells with human cells.”

At the University of Illinois, Fathi received her master’s in bioengineering in 2017 and her Ph.D. in 2020 with a concentration in cancer nanotechnology. But she cut her teeth on research in UMD’s four-year Gemstone program.

“I was part of Team Clot. We worked in Dr. Peter Kofinas’ lab developing a polymer that could induce blood clotting,” she says. “We did develop a polymer, and it was able to induce clotting pretty quickly, and we published a paper on it after we graduated.”

The research experience she gained as an undergrad has followed her to her current work at NIH, where she leads the Unit for NanoEngineering and MicroPhysiological Systems. Her work is primarily focused on thyroid research, related to studying thyroid autoimmune diseases and thyroid cancer.

The first focus of her lab is on developing in vitro organ-on-a-chip models of healthy and diseased thyroids. “These models can be used to study the role of various cell types and molecules in the development of thyroid immune responses,” Fathi says.

Its second focus centers around evaluating the potential of natural and engineered nanoparticles to increase or decrease immune responses. “This will provide insight into how immune-related diseases occur as well as provide potential therapeutics for these diseases,” she says.

Research life holds endless possibilities and interest for Fathi. “One [thing I love] is the aspect of curiosity and wanting to see if something will work a certain way, or if what I expected to happen will happen. There’s also a feeling of amazement about how things naturally even exist. That discovery, the excitement of when you see something expected or unexpected—all of that is exciting,” she says. “A lot of my most interesting projects have been things that are unexpected.”


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