by Meredith Dault
When Mohsen Omrani first came to Queen’s, he had no long-term plans to stay. “I met my current professor at a conference in 2004,” he recalls. “I really liked his research, so I came for a month-long visit.” Already a qualified medical doctor in his native Iran, Omrani had funding to do post-doctoral research at a university in the United States. “I was not supposed to come for the long term!” laughs Omrani. But then his plans changed. “I asked the professor if I could stay a little longer, and he said ‘sure.’ And then he said, ‘while you’re here, why not start a degree?”
That was in 2007. Now in the first year of his PhD in neuroscience (he started in the Master’s program, but rolled into a doctoral program last year), Omrani is also the recent recipient of a prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. At $50,000 per year for three years, the Vanier is awarded by the Canadian Government in a bid to “attract and retain world-class doctoral students,” and is awarded to deserving students who not only demonstrate solid academic abilities, but a gift for leadership as well.
Omrani fits the bill. “I have been blessed through my whole education,” he says. “I was blessed with good mentors, and I have always felt like I should give back.” From the time he was in high school in Iran, Omrani explains, he has been keen on research. By the time he started to study neuroscience, in parallel to his medical school at Tehran University in 1998, he says there was no centre in his country devoted to the field. That’s why he joined forces with a few other interested students (some of whom who had been meeting for a couple of years already) to “read papers and study brain function.” By 2001, he explains, they were still the only formal neuroscience research group in Iran. The group began pursuing their own research, and within a couple of years had published over 40 papers and garnered the attention of some of the country’s major research institutes. The success story of their group grabbed the attention of “Nature” journal’s editor and their story was published in the journal in 2005.
In 2003, Omrani became the director of the group, revoking the title when he relocated to Canada. He is now the president of the Iranian Neuroscientists Community in North America -- a loose affiliation of researchers who share the common goal of trying to help develop the field of neuroscience in Iran.
Omrani’s current research involves studying the physiology of movement -- specifically, how the brain controls movement in the upper body. “We want to know, for instance, what happens (in the brain) when you reach for something. It looks like a simple, seamless movement, but it is so complicated indeed!” he explains enthusiastically. The lab uses a robot to help test for things like how the brain and muscles react to sudden movements. “Our lab tries to model and theorize it,” he explains, “like, ‘ok, so this is how the brain might be doing it’.”
Omrani says even while in medical school that it was the research aspect of things that really excited him. That’s why he says he is thrilled to be at Queen’s. “The neuroscience program here is exceptionally good. Usually universities will have one professor in the field I am working in, but here there are five or six professors. In my field, I think it’s the best place to be.”
A recent father (he and his wife, also a medical doctor, just had their first child), Omrani says he hopes to secure a job as a researcher or professor once he’s earned his PhD. For now, he says he’s thrilled with the possibilities his Vanier scholarship will afford him. “I can now do whatever I like the most,” he explains, “rather than feel pressured to practice (medicine). I know that I’m doing something because I love it, and not just because I want to have more money.”