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Reza Dana: Success Begins Outside Your Comfort Zone

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavor. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Reza Dana.

Professor Reza Dana holds the Claes Dohlman Chair in Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School where is Vice Chairman and Associate Chief of Ophthalmology for Academic Programs. He is also Director of the Cornea Service at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Senior Scientist and W. Clement Stone Scholar at the Schepens Eye Research Institute, and a faculty member in the Immunology graduate program at Harvard Medical School. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities, his work focuses on the molecular and cellular mechanisms of eye inflammation with applications in autoimmunity, transplantation, dry eye disease, stem cells, and bioengineering.

Dana has authored over 400 publications, books and reviews, and his scientific work has been cited more than 19,000 times. He has been the recipient of numerous national and international scientific awards in the fields of ophthalmology, transplantation, and neuroscience, and is recognized internationally as a leading vision scientist and ocular immunologist whose work has transformed the fields of corneal transplantation and ocular autoimmune diseases. He has delivered more than 200 invited lectures worldwide and is an editor of several scientific journals and textbooks. Among his most significant contributions has been his training and mentoring of over 120 physicians, scientists and students from more than 30 countries in his laboratory, many starting their own leading academic programs around the globe. In 2014, Dana received the A. Clifford Barger Excellence in Mentoring Award, the highest mentoring award bestowed at the Harvard Medical School.

Can you tell us about your personal and family background? Can you outline your journey beginning as a student to your appointment as a professor at Harvard University?

I grew up in a family for whom education was paramount. My parents themselves came from highly educated families, and had older siblings who were quite accomplished, including writers, journalists, scholars, and lawyers. This focus on education, in the broad sense of the word that meant understanding the world and not simply learning a trade, was a current that was quite strong in our family. My parents met across a balcony wall that separated their apartments near the Tehran University campus. My father completed his studies in architecture, and received his graduate degree in the US; my mother completed her degree in child psychology. They belonged to the professional and educated class in Iran, and like many of their peers sent their children to Europe and the US for their education.

I attended the Tehran International School where we had students from over 50 countries, many from the large community of mostly Americans and Europeans who lived in Tehran. My parents had already planned on sending me to study overseas for high school, but the start of the Iranian revolution and social unrest that led to the closure of many schools, and departure of the international faculty, compelled them to send me abroad early. I completed my high school years in a boarding “prep” school in New Hampshire, followed by my university studies and medical degree at Johns Hopkins University. I made my way back to New England in the 1990s to complete my ophthalmology subspecialty training at Harvard in my field of ocular and transplantation immunology. After completing my studies here, I had the opportunity to stay and develop my own program as a faculty member, and I haven’t left since.

What brought you to Ophthalmology? Was there a particular person, place or event that you count among your key influences to date?

That’s an interesting question; I don’t think life is merely a game of chance, but at least in my life, unplanned events have had a major impact on how things transpired, including my choice of specialty. My initial draw to medicine came from a deep conviction in doing something that had social, not just career or monetary, value, and this is one reason I pursued a degree in public health as well. I also wanted to pursue a career that had value for people anywhere in the world. These priorities drew me to medicine. During medical school, I became very interested in the concept of organ transplantation and transplant immunology. One day during a random conversation with a friend, I learned about corneal transplants, and how they can restore vision to many people blind from corneal diseases— say from infections and injuries. Honestly, until that time I had not given ophthalmology much serious consideration. But I arranged a couple of interviews with laboratories that were doing research in the area. The more I learned about the possibilities of transplantation, including use of stem cells, whose applications were just being appreciated in medicine at the time, and the issues of immune mediated transplant rejection, the more I was drawn to the idea of doing my work in corneal transplantation. The idea of merging transplantation with restoring vision totally captivated me, and so I signed up to work in a corneal transplant lab. So, a seemingly random conversation launched my life’s professional pursuit.

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