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Iemaan Rana, a Public Health PhD student at UC Berkeley, is one of this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 Achievement for Science recipients. Iemaan is the first person ever to simultaneously pursue an MD (at the University of Illinois) and Ph.D. at two different institutions, and her research focuses on carcinogenic exposures. We connected with Iemaan to ask her about her journey to making the Forbes list, her research, and what she plans to do next with the 30 Under 30 title in tow.

Where are you from?

I grew up in a low-income area in Chicago, where I experienced firsthand the effects of environmental toxins in my surrounding community. This early exposure, compounded by the chronic lung conditions plaguing my family, propelled me into studying environmental determinants of health throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies at Berkeley. The harsh realities of my upbringing, including financial constraints and being separated from family, fueled my determination to prevent toxic exposures that could save countless lives. At the same time, I am lucky to have had a circle of support and encouragement from friends and family, along with a well-rounded education at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School.

Could you discuss your current research with predictive models? What got you interested in this type of research?

My research focuses on pioneering predictive models to identify the carcinogenic potential of various chemicals, a passion ignited by the health inequities I observed within my community. The process of identifying carcinogens is extremely complex, as it may take decades for disease to manifest after exposure, and dozens of confounders may play a role. The key characteristics of carcinogens allow one to infer the cancer-causing potential of a compound through mechanistic assays without solely relying on conducting expensive and time-consuming human studies.

This endeavor is not just an academic pursuit but a personal mission to alleviate the burden of disease caused by preventable toxic exposures. It may take years and even decades for the harms of toxic exposures to manifest in human beings, which makes the modeling aspect even more important.

Forbes 30 under 30 is a pretty impressive achievement. How did this come about? Was there a nomination process?

I was initially nominated by a research collaborator, and after being selected as a Semi-Finalist there was a thorough evaluation of my scientific and public health advancements that led to my honor of being selected for the list. At the same time, performing high-impact work and being able to explain the importance of my research to a public audience was important in getting the award. At UC Berkeley, I got to present my research at the Grad Slam Competition, where I was honored with the People’s Choice Award.

Full disclosure, I was also selected as a Semi-Finalist for the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2020 but did not make the final list. At the time, Luoping told me that she was confident I could make the list and felt I had the best chance after my then-in-progress publications were in press. The experience reminded me of two things – never give up and Luoping is always right.

How did you find out and how did you feel when you found out that you had made the Forbes 30 under 30 list? Who was the first person you told?

I was scrolling through my inbox and my heart skipped a beat when my eyes glossed over the subject title “Welcome to the Forbes Under 30 Class of 2024”. Knowing that I made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list was a surreal and validating moment. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the first two people that I shared the news with were my mentors from the UC Berkeley Superfund Research Program, Professor Luoping Zhang and Professor Martyn Smith.

Meeting Luoping early in my academic journey and receiving her encouragement has been a cornerstone of my success. As my mentor, Luoping not only guided me academically but also nurtured my growth. During challenging days in undergrad filled with self-doubt, it was Luoping who looked me in the eyes and told me to believe in myself and to “never be ordinary.”

As I read and re-read the email, I thought back to the countless long nights we spent doing research side by side in her office, discussing everything from toxins to the tribulations of life while munching on Thai food. What made it even more special was that, despite my apartment being just across the street from the office, Luoping never failed her after-work tradition of driving me home after dark. She waited until I was safely inside before driving away, a touching gesture that illustrated that her care extends beyond science. This was more than a personal achievement; it was a milestone that belonged to both of us.

Why did you choose Berkeley for your graduate education?

I chose to stay at Berkeley for graduate school because of the culture of innovation and thinking differently. My time training with the Superfund Research Program and the vibrant academic community is a testament to the limitless opportunities provided by the program. My undergraduate experience here was profoundly enriching, filled with inspiring mentors and peers who shaped my academic path and personal growth.

How has your time at Berkeley prepared you for the type of work you’re now conducting?

Berkeley has taught me to pursue intellectual creativity and think outside the box. From my exposure to the environmental toxicology department to the inspiration drawn from the CRISPR lab being housed opposite our group, I have been surrounded by innovation and excellence. Berkeley has taught me to pursue intellectual creativity and think outside the box. From my exposure to the environmental toxicology department to the inspiration drawn from the CRISPR lab being housed opposite our group, I have been surrounded by innovation and excellence. My mentor, Martyn, a rockstar scientist by day and a rockstar percussionist at night, is by no means a one-hit wonder. He reinvented the field several times throughout his career, from advancing the exposome to pioneering how chemicals can be classified as carcinogens. Our discussions are always free-flowing debates, characterized by intellectual banter and underscored by mutual respect, all with the shared goal of performing the highest quality science. This nurturing environment has been instrumental in my development as a researcher and equipped me with the skills necessary for my current endeavors.

How do you balance the workload of obtaining two doctoral degrees simultaneously at Berkeley and the University of Illinois?

Pursuing an MD at the University of Illinois while completing my PhD at Berkeley is challenging, yet incredibly rewarding. I found the most success following three simple rules:

  1. Exercise and eat well — a fit body leads to a fit mind. Medicine is a marathon, not a sprint. I prioritize my afternoon barre classes just as highly as my practice questions.
  2. Utilize tools to study efficiently – Anki for flashcards, Sunsama for time management, and concept maps to pull everything together and test retention.
  3. Ask for help. Despite their overcommitted schedules, my mentors are always one text message away. They make themselves available to me immediately regardless of whether they are on vacation or eating dinner—I am immensely grateful for their unconditional support and hope to continue their legacy by mentoring others with the same care that was given to me.

My time at Berkeley instilled a belief that anything is possible, shaping my perspective that medicine and public health are interconnected. I have the unique privilege of understanding disease at a patient level in the clinic and hospital wards while examining the broader societal and environmental factors at play through a macroscopic lens. Working at the interface between the direct and indirect factors motivates me to keep working hard towards fulfilling my dreams.

What are your plans after you obtain your degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois? What do you hope to accomplish?

Upon completing my degrees, I am committed to exploring innovative solutions to public health challenges, particularly those related to toxic chemical exposures. My goal is to leverage my research to inform policy and enhance preventive healthcare, focusing on making a tangible impact in underserved communities.

A version of this story first appeared on the UC Berkeley Graduate Division website. Reprinted with permission.