By Jed Ngalande
Sayeh Kohani ’22 was named a Rhodes Scholar on Nov. 20. Kohani, who studies bioengineering and public policy, has already co-authored two papers on cell biology through the labs she works with, and she is on her way to publishing her own research.
As an aspiring physician-scientist, she aims to complete a Master of Science in Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, and a Master of Science in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation.
She is one of the 32 American 2022 Rhodes Scholar-elects, and is among this year’s record 22 female recipients. Kohani is this year’s sole Stanford recipient (three Stanford students received Rhodes Scholarships last year).
Kohani told The Daily that she developed her passion for science at a young age, in part inspired by the physician and philosopher Ibn Sina. Her late grandmother’s battle with Parkinson’s disease drove Kohani to hold a specific interest in neuroscience even before she arrived at Stanford. Since then, she has also developed a passion for health policy.
During her first year at Stanford, Kohani began neurobiology research in the Lou Lab. When her grandmother tragically passed away during Kohani’s first year, Kohani was inspired to study social policies related to those struggling with neurological health. Kohani said that the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic reminded her of her grandmother’s final days.
“My grandmother passed away my freshman year, and I had noticed in the year after I left that her condition rapidly declined, and I think a lot of it had to do with being alone,” Kohani said. “And it was interesting during the pandemic — a lot of memory care facilities and studies were saying that exact thing. All these people in nursing homes and assisted living weren’t able to see their families or connect with the outside world in any way, and it led to really rapid declines in brain health.”
In response, Kohani worked with memory care facilities in her home city of San Diego and began a program in which undergraduate students were matched to patients with neurodegenerative conditions to engage in conversations about shared interests.
Kohani has also participated in the Stanford Health Advocacy and Research in the Emergency Department (SHAR(ED)) program since her first year. Through SHAR(ED), Kohani screened patients at the Stanford Hospital Emergency Department and connected them with social resources, from childcare to food security.
“That was an incredible experience, and it exposed to me how important social factors are in health outcomes,” Kohani said.
Leily Rezvani ’22, who has known Kohani since childhood, said that Kohani has dedicated her entire life to supporting others. Rezvani described Kohani as an older sister figure who is “one of the most positive and supportive people” in her life. Rezvani added that Kohani is a positive person who both reinforces and brings out the best in everyone she interacts with — traits which Rezvani said she is confident will lead Kohani to make a tremendous impact on the world.
“She is a ray of sunshine, and everyone can see it. She really brings out the best in people,” Rezvani said. “She is extremely supportive, extremely warm, and I think everything she does she will do with care and with a genuine curiosity.”
Biology and neurobiology professor Liqun Luo, whose laboratory Kohani has worked in for two and a half years and three full summers, said that Kohani has possessed an “excellent grasp” on her projects ever since her first year. Luo taught Kohani in the 2021 winter course Bio 254: Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology, and said that the two published papers co-authored by Kohani, in addition to the paper he expects she will publish based on her current research, demonstrate “remarkable productivity.”
“On the bench, Sayeh is very meticulous, so her results are always reproducible and trustworthy. She is also incredibly hardworking and passionate about research,” Luo said. “Given her curiosity, passion, intelligence, persistence and humility, I have no doubt that Sayeh will be an outstanding physician-scientist in her chosen field.”
Kohani said she plans to conduct research related to the neurological circuits that underlie memory formation. She hopes to evaluate population health data, analyze relevant social policies and see how policies can be changed to improve health outcomes.
“I’d really like to integrate my research in the future with policy,” Kohani said, adding that she hopes to work on “improving treatments for neurological disorders and doing basic biology research on the foundation for a lot of these conditions, but then combining that in my clinical work to examine and implement policies that affect neurological disorders.”