From selling used car parts to studying organ transplants
From the time Parwiz Abrahimi started school until he was 13 or 14, weekend mornings often meant getting up at 1 a.m. to help his father deliver The Seattle Times. Then, before sunrise, Parwiz and his brother and two sisters would help their parents load used car parts into a rickety station wagon to sell what they could at the Midway Swap & Shop in suburban Seattle.
“I don’t think my dad really understood labor laws,” said Abrahimi with a laugh. During the week, his father did odd jobs, and the family lived in public housing.
In a roundabout way, it was that flea market that set Parwiz Abrahimi on the road to what he is today: an M.D./Ph.D. student at Yale and a 2013 recipient of a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.
Abrahimi and his family came to the United States from Afghanistan in 1990, when he was four. Fighting against the invading Soviet army had turned into a civil war a year earlier after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from the country. Three of Abrahimi’s uncles had died in the violence, and his father, who had worked for the previous government, had twice been arrested. A smuggler led the family‒members of the persecuted minority group, the Hazara‒through the mountains to Pakistan. They were granted asylum in the United States 18 months later.
When Abrahimi was 12, his father bought him a manual for the programming language C++ at the swap meet. As Abrahimi struggled to learn the program on a clunky Intel “286,” he discovered that “I was a technical guy.” It opened up the world of quantitative reasoning. The gift also conveyed a message: that learning was a priority. “We took the interpretation of the American dream as obtaining an education and achieving social mobility.”
At the University of Washington, Abrahimi studied biomedical engineering because it was new and multidisciplinary and addressed problems in medicine. He graduated in 2007 and worked for a year at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, Md., trying his hand at laboratory research “to see if it was something for me.” It was.
In 2008, before starting the M.D./Ph.D. program, Abrahimi taught science for a year at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and at Marefat High School in his family’s former home, the impoverished Dashti Barchi neighborhood. He moved to New Haven a year later to begin his medical studies. Three years later, before beginning his doctoral research, he returned to Afghanistan to study the safety of donated blood.
Now doing his doctoral research in the laboratory of Jordan S. Pober, M.D. ’77, Ph.D. ’77, professor of immunobiology, Abrahimi is testing ways to modify foreign proteins in a transplanted organ so that they won’t set off alarm bells in the recipient’s immune system. Those warning proteins come from the endothelium, the thin layer of cells that lines blood vessels in the organ.
“We want to change the gene expression of the endothelium to make it less stimulating to the immune system,” said Abrahimi. While most efforts to prevent rejection focus on dampening the host’s immune response, Abrahimi is looking at modifying the transplanted organ.
Pober describes Abrahimi’s ability to design and carry out experiments as “remarkably well-developed for someone this early in their graduate training.”
In May the Soros Fellowship announced that Abrahimi had received one of 30 fellowships, which provide $90,000 over two years to fund living expenses and tuition. Fellowship director Stanley J. Heginbotham said that Abrahimi stood out for his achievements in academia and for “his commitment to moral solutions in Afghanistan, and his commitment to transplant medicine. … This guy’s going to make a real difference in some aspect of American life.”
In his spare time Abrahimi serves as a director for social services at the student-run HAVEN Free Clinic in New Haven. He envisions a career that combines care of transplant patients with research on transplantation. “My end goal is to become a physician-scientist, for the clinical care to inform my research.”
Abrahimi became a U.S. citizen in 1997. “This is a country that took my family in when we had nothing, and here I am studying at Yale,” he said. “That said a lot about the country, that it would provide an opportunity to a person like me. This is a country of immigrants, and my generation of Afghan Americans is slowly being integrated into this country and is able to contribute back to the society.”