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Ali Shariati: New Faculty

Department: 
Biomolecular Engineering
Hometown: 
Kermanshah, Iran
Undergraduate Institution: 
Kharazmi University
Graduate Institution: 
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Ali Shariati is our new assistant professor of biomolecular engineering at Baskin Engineering. Ali is originally from Kermanshah, Iran, but comes to UCSC from Stanford University, where he recently completed a post-doc in stem cell biology and bioengineering. His main research interest is in how stem cells decide to choose between the two conflicting fates of division and differentiation. He spoke with us about his research using the popular new gene-editing tool, CRISPR, and his plans for the future here at UCSC. 

What brought you to UCSC? 

Well, clearly what stands out here at UCSC is the quality of research in the life science community. They have established themselves as a group that can answer the kinds of questions that many people thought were too difficult to answer. They have also made important research tools publicly available through, for example, the UCSC Genome Browser, which allows anyone to look at the genome and what information we have about the genes. It was that and their fearless attitude towards research that basically convinced me to come here.

What do you like about doing research here so far? 

First of all, the campus is very beautiful- there is no doubt about that- but I have really been impressed with the students. Even in the short period of time that I've been here, they have shown how motivated they are. I have had many undergraduates contacting me and asking really great questions and wanting to join the lab to do more research. 

What are you currently researching? 

Well, I am a biologist and biologists have for a long time been fascinated by this question of how humans are formed and developed... I study how the two basic processes of development, division and differentiation, work together in order to make sure that we have the right type and the right number of the cells in our body.

Tell us about your work with CRISPR

So, I use CRISPR primarily to understand how gene activity is regulated in our genome. It is a kind of re-purposing of the original technology so that we can now use it to get to the nitty gritty details of the activity of the genome.

There‚Äôs been a lot of excitement in the field in the last seven or so years about using CRISPR, which is a tool with which you can cut a specific part of your genome to delete genes that may not be useful or may cause diseases. What I did was use a version of CRISPR  that doesn't cut at all, called Deactivated CRISPR, or dCas9, to understand the switches that control the activity of the genome. DCas9 competes with the proteins that bind to our genes and control their activity, and by removing them, we can explore how interactions between proteins and DNA control the activity of the genes. If we know the switches that turn genes on and off, we have a better shot at trying to control the genes that are involved in diseases. Instead of going to delete the genes involved in disease, we can control their activity, and that puts a lot more options in front of us.

What are your long-term goals for the lab?

So, what I would consider to be a career well-performed would be one in which I would be able to answer this question: How do stem cells think? How do they process the signals that they receive from the environment? Stem cells have many choices- they can become a neuron, they can become a fibroblast, they can become blood cells- how do they compute the signals from the environment in order to make the right decision? The inner working within individual cells of how they process the signals from the environment to coordinate these important decisions such as whether they should divide right now or no, differentiate or no- those are the questions that sometimes keep me awake during the night.

What class are you most excited to teach?

I'm really excited about my Stem Cell Engineering course, BME 177, that I am going to teach in the spring quarter. I'm revising the course to include some of the more recent ideas and emerging technologies in the field. In particular, I will focus on some of the synthetic tissues that we can generate from stem cells, and also the applications of CRISPR technology. I think those are two really exciting areas, and my goal is for the students to take some of these ideas from the course and bring them with them to the next level to have a positive impact in graduate school or industry. 

What industries would be interested in this research?

Right now there is a really heavy investment on using CRISPR and stem cells. Biotech companies and pharma companies are looking for people to bring those ideas into a clinical setting. Basically, the limitation of industry applications is just your imagination. With CRISPR and stem cells, you really have a lot of options for treating diseases that we thought were untreatable or difficult to treat. 

Is there anything else you would like our community to know about you?

I'm really excited to be here at UC Santa Cruz. I come from a relatively humble background in terms of growing up in the Middle East. This was one of the early schools that I got to know when I was an undergrad in Iran. I remember reading a paper from one of the famous researchers here and searching the name of the university. I ended up seeing pictures of people surfing and I thought, that's really an exciting place. I just wanted to say to the students, that regardless of their backgrounds, if they have the desire, they can attain whatever aim they set for themselves. There's nothing that can stop them from getting there.