Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A visit to Tehran

The taxi service that my host had arranged called the night before to tell me that because of morning traffic, and the distance of the conference to our apartment, he would need to come at 7:30am.  I said OK and hoped that I would be able to sleep and wake up in time, as the night before the whole family was up at 2 am having “breakfast”, and then sound sleep till around noon.  The traffic turned out to be surprisingly light as we drove southwest of Tehran, toward a region that had a number of fruit orchards. 

The conference, 22nd Iranian Biomedical Engineering meeting, was held at a rather beautiful location, a series of buildings placed in a nicely landscaped campus.  Our building had intricate Islamic style carvings on the ceilings and walls.  The main conference hall was decorated with mosaic of mirrors and tiles, and unexpectedly, two styles of chairs: large, heavily upholstered rows of chairs up front, and smaller, more modestly upholstered chairs in the rows back.  The professors sat up front, the students in the back.

The conference started with speakers who were not scientists, but government officials.  They were there mostly to talk to the cameras (their speech was recorded for the evening news apparently): talk of budgets, lack of budgets, and need for budgets.  One lovely thing was the moderator, who read a short poem before introducing each speaker.  This mixture of “hard” sciences with the “soft” arts, equations and poetry, is one of the pleasures of attending a meeting in Iran.

One of the officials described a new institute, set up about a year ago following a large donation from a wealthy Iranian in Canada.   The institute was named after the donor: Movafaghian Research Center in Neurorehab Technologies.  A young scientist working there, Saeed Behzadipour, later described that the first floor housed a rehab clinic where patients tried out student-designed devices like an exoskeleton robot, and a balancing system.  The second floor housed the students and scientists, and the third floor housed start-up companies that commercialized the devices.  How nice, I thought; finally the wealth and success of a few expatriates coming back to do some good.

My talk was in the afternoon.  Looking at the conference hall, it seemed that most of students were female (later I learned that almost 70% of the undergraduate in Iran were female).  I gave a talk that described my student Yousef Salimpour’s work on non-invasive cortical stimulation in Parkinson’s disease.  My talk was in English, which is a little embarrassing.  I remember my dad coming to one of my talks many years back.  Afterwards he told me that he thought no one understood a word I said.  But after I finished there was a line of students who asked questions.  The last student in line was a young lady who had brought me a gift, a beautiful little book. 

I ended my talk with a poem from Abo Ali Sina, the 12th century Persian physician.  I had read the poem on the plane ride, having discovered it in my new Iranian passport.  Each page had a drawing of a monument in remembrance of a Persian poet or artist, and a few words from them.  What a nice passport, I thought, focusing on Persian artists and scientists.

The conference had a modest exhibition hall.  There I saw a company that displayed an exoskeleton robot that wrapped around the legs and torso and walked stroke patients, and another company with a robot that moved a patient out of their bed and had them stand up.  Many of the companies displayed hospital instruments, dialysis machines and the like -- all quite proud of the fact that they were able to build the machines despite crippling economic sanctions.  (Perhaps because I was raised in the American west, I have always admired people who aspire to be self-sufficient.)

During the regular sessions I heard a talk by a student , Sahar Jahani, who had done an experiment using functional near infrared spectroscopy, measuring activity in the prefrontal cortex during an attention task.  It was a nicely designed and executed study, showing that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex increased with task difficulty.  But what was really impressive was the fact that she was using an instrument designed and built by an earlier group of engineering students. 

The conference book listed around 200 abstracts, all in English.  It seemed that despite years of sanctions, science had survived.


Some of the very best neuroscientists in Iran work at a place called Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM), in the School of Cognitive Science.  What stands out is that while almost everywhere else in the world research on non-human primate brain is declining, with laboratories closing due to the high monetary and political costs of neurophysiological research, here is a place where research is expanding.  I saw three laboratories working on the cerebral cortex and the neural basis of vision. 

I gave a one day short-course, summarizing the work of the last couple of decades on how the brain controls movements of the eyes; contributions of the basal ganglia, superior colliculus, and the cerebellum.  We started at 9:30am, with a room that was so full that, to my delight, they kept on bringing in chairs.  The sight of all those eager students, and their wonderful questions that followed every slide, was a source of energy that fed me for the whole day (the lecture ended at 4:30pm).  I then met with individual students and visited labs.  The labs were recording from neurons in the brain with amplifiers and other electronics that were all homemade, another example of survival in the face of sanction imposed scarcity.  When the day had come to an end, I felt that I had experienced one of the best visits that I had had to any scientific institution.

With the students at the short course on Decisions and Actions, held at Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM), Center for Cognitive Science.


The most unusual feature of the city of Tehran is its sheer number of private banks (that is, not-government owned): driving through the city, it is hard to pass a block of a major street without passing a couple of bank branches.  There are more numerous than corner delis.  On the display windows are rates for certificates of deposit: 20% annual interest.  This implies that inflation must be much higher than that.

I sat and listened to the song of the caged love birds, hanging outside the corner grocer, and watched a  Persian alley cat cross the street.  The best thing about my short visit, however, was the quality of food.  The bread baker a few doors down from the apartment baked a thin flat bread, and sold it hot as it came out of the clay oven for around 15 cents.  The vegetables, particularly the ordinary humble tomatoes, were as red in the inside as the gorgeous color on the outside.  The dairy products, the sheep’s milk cheeses, were spectacular.  The cream pastries that I bought from the confectionery a block away were as good as those that I had had in Paris.  But what made the experience special was that this quality came at a fraction of the price that I had paid back home in America.