Interview with Zahra Zakeri

  • How did you get into science?

I was always curious about how anything worked and why things were the way they were. I remember that, when I was 5 years old, I was asking my father what was all over us what was in between us? At first, he had no idea what I was asking, but then he realized I was asking what was in the space between us, and he explained that it was air and what it was made of.  He was surprised that at that age I would ask such questions and so much more. He used to call me “Questions”. My curiosity remained, fostered by my father, I got into doing science when I was an undergraduate and my Genetics teacher, Dr. Leslie Lewis, noticed how fascinated I was by what he had to teach us. He asked me if I wanted to work in his lab (at that time not too many undergraduates did that). After that second summer in college, I was hooked and I have never left the lab since.   

  • How did you get into this field? 

I was a cellular and molecular biologist working on heat shock and patterning gene expression and regulation during development and some disease conditions. During my discussion with Dr. Richard Lockshin about my findings, I realized that some of the methodology and questions I was dealing with related to how cells make a decision to die or stay alive. From around 1983 I started working in collaboration with Richard and others to look at these possibilities first at Columbia University where I was and then at Rutgers University and Queens College.  

  • How influential has CDD press (CDD, CDDis, CDDiscov) been? 

We (Richard and I) were together with Gerry Melino and Mauro Piacentini when CDD just was first conceived and planned. I think these Journals have been pivotal in the promotion and enhancement of the field of cell death. These journals have always strived for excellence and have achieved that very well. These journals have been a very strong advocate of the field, and central to its acceptance as a major research direction.  

  • How do feel about your role as editor? 

I have been honored to be part of the editorial board and hope that I have done a good job and have made a difference. It is exciting to see how the field has grown and sharpened over the last quarter-century.  

  • What do you think are the most important recent findings? 

I think one of the most important findings, which still is of major importance, was the realization that not all the cells die by one way and that there are many ways for a cell to die and to know that it should die.

  • What are the questions remaining to be answered?

Although we now know so much about cell death, we still cannot specifically control the fate of a cell with regard to its survival or death.  Knowing the underlying regulation of the events will help in this matter. We have much to learn about the proximate triggers and the interaction of many metabolic pathways with these triggers.

  • How did you decide to start ICDS & the Gordon Conference series?

Around the same time as we were talking about a journal, we also started to put together with Richard a proposal for the first of what would eventually become a series of Gordon Conferences on cell death. As the rules allowed only have two people officially on the proposal, we thought putting Richard Lockshin and Andrew Wyllie as the proposers would give more support to its success to be selected as a conference by the Gordon Conference officers. I was still very junior in the field so we did not officially put my name on it. The proposal was selected and we had our first meeting in 1995.

The start of the ICDS was different story. As I became more involved in the field. I realized that there were many people that had the same interest and should talk to each other specifically on this topic so, following a conversation with Michael Hengartner when we were waiting for a shuttle at an airport, and continuing that conversation with Raymond Birge at a Keystone Conference, we started a “Death Poets’ Society” at Rockefeller University with Dr Raymond Birge and the support of Rockefeller university. As there was no official society as yet we thought that we should have a Society. There was an interest group in Europe that was organizing meetings which then became ECDO. We established the International Cell Death Society in 1995. We have had yearly meetings in many different countries and have been a strong promoter of women in science as well as promoting science in underdeveloped countries giving rise to a secondary group, “Scientists Without Borders for Education”.

  • Do you have recommendations for young women getting into science?

I always remember what my postdoctoral mentor, Dr Debra Wolgemuth, told me one day when I was so mad that before publishing my paper the editors of Cell and Molecular Biology were asking me how many times, I did the experiment that showed for the first time that heat shock genes were under the regulation of events of cell cycle and not just heat or stress.  Debra said that, “if a man makes a mistake, they all say, ‘Well, he made a mistake,” but when a woman makes a mistake they say, ‘Well what do you expect it’s a woman,’ so we need to make sure we are right in every aspect to show we are just as good (but sometimes better).”

Being a woman in the field has had its challenges. I recommend to the young women scientists not to give up, not to let others tell them that they are incapable of doing the work, and not let the disadvantages keep them back. We need to just push and change the system. Nothing comes out of just complaining. We need to work hard, love ourselves for being a woman, and know that we can do anything we put our mind to. When discouraged just think how we juggle 10 things at the same time without even realizing it, so then know that we could not possibly be less capable than anyone.  We should always see ourselves as equals and teach others to see us as equal. We have to be adamant in teaching and preaching this idea to our kids, our students, our family and our friends. We can change the world when we can all see each other as human rather than male, female or otherwise. I thing the most important thing we can do as a scientist is to be a good citizen of the world and to make the world a better place with our hard work. I will tell the young ladies, don’t just do it for yourself. Make a difference for others even when no one is looking.  

  • In your retirement will you still continue your efforts with scientists from developing countries?

I would like very much to be able to continue my work with scientists from developing countries and to make the “Scientist Without Borders for Education” a stronger force. I hope I get all of you who are reading this to help me in that. When I was given the honor of being called an “Ambassador to Science,” someone asked me what made me do this? I thought about it and said that I was publishing and getting paid for my scientific work and that was for me but it was not enough. What made it worthwhile was when I started working for others and how the thanks and happiness it brought to others made my day. So, I hope I can keep on doing just that and give to others as much as I can so I can make my life worth living.