Siavash Kurdistani has never taken for granted the good fortune that has come his way.

Recently, for example, his quest as an Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research and Jonsson Comprenehsive Cancer Center researcher to solve a molecular mystery has won the support of some big guns in the war against cancer.

The UCLA physician-biochemist, 37, hopes to discover the molecular mechanisms that control chemical changes in proteins called histones. If he can detect patterns of different histone modifications in a variety of tumors, he may someday be able to predict the prognosis of cancer patients based on these patterns.

Last February, he received a highly competitive seed grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to conduct embryonic stem cell research. Then came funding from the American Cancer Society and, more recently, the Beckman Young Investigator Scholar Award.

In achieving all that he has, Kurdistani has always been appreciative of the opportunities given him. "In the grand scheme of things, I realize that my life could have been a lot different, perhaps for the worse," he said.

Born in Tehran, he grew up during the chaos of the 1979 revolution and subsequent war with Iraq. He knew hardship, and, as a Kurdish Jew, he also knew religious discrimination.

Unable to finish high school or emigrate legally because of his minority status, the 17-year-old decided to leave his family and flee. Over 10 grueling days, smugglers helped him escape by car and foot over mountainous terrain to Pakistan.

"The trip from Iran to Pakistan was the biggest event of my life," recalled Kurdistani, who shed 15 pounds during the arduous journey.

But his freedom was short-lived. He was captured for entering the country illegally and jailed for three days until the smugglers bribed his captors to release him. To get out of Pakistan, he went to the United Nations office and pleaded for refugee status. With the help of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, he relocated to Austria and, eight months later, to New York City.

Staying with a cousin in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, Kurdistani learned English, studied hard and graduated from high school. Then, reunited with his family, who had finally been allowed to leave Iran, he headed west.

Kurdistani attended Santa Monica College and transferred to UCLA. He found himself working with Nobel laureate chemist Donald Cram.

"He took me by the hand and guided me to a different level," Kurdistani said.

After graduating summa cum laude in biochemistry and then from Harvard Medical School magna cum laude, he returned to UCLA for residency training in the pathology and laboratory medicine department, followed by four years on a postdoctoral fellowship with Michael Grunstein, now chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry.

"I don’t know whether my experience has made me a better scientist per se, but it does drive me to take full advantage of the opportunities that I have been offered," Kurdistani said in retrospect. "I have learned not to take what I have for granted. … And that helps me keep my life in the right perspective."


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