Laughs, Love, and Lab Coats: The Hilarious Journey of a Cancer Researcher

by Saber Imani

Life had a plan for me, one that surpassed the traditional family expectation of becoming a medical doctor. Fate had a grander scheme in mind: I was destined to become a cancer researcher. This calling was deeply personal, as cancer had tragically taken the lives of both my grandfathers, and I couldn’t bear the thought of succumbing to this painful scenario myself.

Now, let me take you on an uproarious ride back in time to the year 2012.

Picture this – it’s 2012, and there I was, a top biology researcher in Iran (yes, I’m not joking!). Despite battling the chilling temperatures, I enthusiastically embarked on a Ph.D. journey in cancer research at BMSU, Tehran, thanks to a free presidential gift bestowed upon me. Little did I know that this journey was about to take me on a roller coaster like no other!

My dream was to unravel the mysteries of cancer epigenetics and metastasis in a top-notch laboratory abroad. But oh boy, it was a series of hurdles! First, I snagged the prestigious Ph.D. Scholarship of CAS-TWAS President’s Fellowship Program – hurray! But then reality slapped me in the face – I couldn’t take it up without facing the wrath of a hefty penalty for leaving my ongoing Ph.D. program in Iran. Ouch!

Undeterred, I set my sights on a visiting fellowship in the USA. I managed to secure an interview with a renowned professor at Washington University School of Medicine, but life had other plans. I jetted off to Dubai for the embassy interview, only to be greeted with a big “NO” due to the ongoing political drama. Seriously, could things get any crazier?

Just when I thought the universe was toying with me, destiny threw me a curveball – or rather, a cocktail! One fateful night, in a Dubai bar, I found myself pouring my heart out about cancer epigenetics, machine learning, and chromatin remodeling to anyone who would listen. I used the bar’s whiteboard for teaching! But here’s the kicker – I was utterly and hilariously drunk!

In my intoxicated state, I probably sounded like a mad scientist, but lo and behold, the universe had a surprise for me. Enter Professor Junjiang Fu, the Chinese-American genius and Dean of the Key Laboratory of Epigenetics and Oncology at the Research Center for Preclinical Medicine, Southwest Medical University, Luzhou, Sichuan, China. Instead of dismissing my drunken ramblings, he was intrigued and offered me a position in his Chinese lab! Yes, you read that right – a bar chat led to my breakthrough!

You’d think waking up the next morning with a hangover would be painful, but it was the complete opposite. My head throbbed with a mix of alcohol and excitement. Professor Fu’s offer was my ticket to China, where my life took a crazy turn! I embraced the opportunity with open arms – in China, I found not just a thriving research career (particularly in CHINA) but love too! I married and now have a beautiful family in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. Talk about a plot twist!

In 2017, I bid farewell to Prof. Junjiang Fu’s lab. The local newspaper featured our outstanding achievements, including 18 ISI papers, 2 international projects, and prestigious roles as editors for an international e-book titled “Cancer In Epigenetics” published by Alpha Science Publisher, Oxford, UK in 2018. Achieved in under three years, those were the days! Hoping for a flattering portrayal! And, to add to the fun, I couldn’t even read the newspaper then; it was all in Chinese languages!

Today, I’m an Assistant Professor at Zhejiang Medical University, passionately pursuing cancer research. Life taught me a valuable lesson – never lose sight of your dreams, no matter how funny the journey may seem. So, to all aspiring researchers out there, remember that your breakthrough might be hiding in a bar chat or a hilarious misadventure!

In conclusion, science is a wild ride filled with laughter and unexpected transitions. My journey from a freezing Iranian researcher to a happily married cancer scientist in China is proof that resilience and humor can turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones in our pursuit of scientific discoveries.

About the author:

Dr. Saber Imani is not your typical cancer researcher. With a roller coaster ride of a life and a penchant for funny twists, he has navigated through ups and downs to make his mark in the scientific community. From battling the specter of cancer in his family to surviving embassy interviews, Dr. Imani’s journey is an epic tale of determination and laughter.

About this article

This is one of our shortlisted entries for the 2023 EACR Science Communication Prize on the topic of Science in Motion: Navigating Transitions. Choosing a winner was incredibly difficult and we’re delighted to be able to share our amazing shortlist.