Amin Haghani, PhD started researching viruses in his home country of Iran over 15 years ago. He already had a doctorate in veterinary medicine. But his desire to focus on research led him down a different academic path and, eventually, to the U.S.
“When I came here, I wasn’t aware of the field of gerontology,” Dr. Haghani says. “My goal was to obtain a PhD and become a researcher.” Finding USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology helped Dr. Haghani discover his passion and land a senior role at Altos Labs, a state-of-the-art biotechnology company. Seeded with more than $3 billion, Altos has an ambitious goal of reversing aging at the cellular level.
A long road to USC
Dr. Haghani left Iran in 2013 to study molecular biology at Universiti Putra Malaysia. There, he had the opportunity to study and publish papers on tick-borne viruses, influenza and (non-COVID) coronaviruses. After graduating with a master’s degree, he moved to the U.S.
“Instead of enrolling in a PhD program right away, I decided to work in a lab first,” Dr. Haghani says. “I applied for several positions, including one with professor Caleb Finch, PhD at USC Leonard Davis School.”
Dr. Finch responded right away. He was impressed with Dr. Haghani’s resume and research experience. Within two weeks, Dr. Haghani was working in the lab as a research technician.
“Dr. Finch knew I wanted to pursue a PhD, so he trusted me to work on many projects,” Dr. Haghani says. One of the projects that would carry over into his own PhD work was investigating the toxicity of air pollution on the brain.
It didn’t take long for Dr. Haghani to realize he was in the right place. After 10 months as a research technician, he applied for and was accepted to the PhD program in Biology of Aging. This innovative doctoral program is a collaborative effort between USC Leonard Davis School and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging.
Becoming a leader in the biology of aging
PhD programs are a combination of rigorous classwork and original research. “I loved USC because I could take courses throughout the university,” Dr. Haghani says. “My focus was biostatistics and computational biology. I found several high-level courses that deepened my expertise in this area.”
Dr. Haghani was also a prolific researcher during his PhD. He explored different aspects of air pollution in Dr. Finch’s lab and with other collaborators. These projects included:
- Identifying the inflammatory pathways that mediate the effects of air pollution on the brain.
- Collaborating with professor Sean Curran, PhD to develop a model of air pollution toxicity in the worm, C. elegans.
- Partnering with UCLA professor Steve Horvath, PhD to investigate DNA methylation in response to air pollution.
Using his biostatistics skills, Dr. Haghani also participated in an epidemiological study with professor Eileen Crimmins, PhD. The study measured the effects of smoking on health outcomes in older women and led to publication in PLOS ONE. In total, Dr. Haghani published more than 10 papers during his PhD, which he completed in May 2020.
“USC is such a collaborative place,” Dr. Haghani says. “When I reached out to professors with ideas, they were always responsive and willing to work together.”
Pioneering the field of aging research
Dr. Haghani’s research with Dr. Horvath led to a post-doc at UCLA and his new position as a senior scientist at Altos. Their mission is to reverse disease, injury and disabilities that occur throughout life by restoring cell health and resilience.
Dr. Haghani’s work looks at how epigenetic changes to DNA (those that regulate gene expression without altering DNA sequences) affect aging. DNA methylation is a type of epigenetic change that occurs with age and due to physiological and environmental stress. It is a biomarker of biological age and a predictor of mortality. DNA methylation may be a better predictor of health and mortality than chronological age (how old you are).
Dr. Haghani measures DNA methylation across over 300 mammalian species to help identify shared epigenetic biomarkers of aging. Collectively, he and about 20 other principal investigators at Altos Labs are working to find molecular mechanisms of cellular damage. This work will hopefully lead to advances in longevity and resilience and the development of anti-aging treatments.
Looking to the future while staying connected to the past
Having achieved his goals, Dr. Haghani enjoys being at the leading edge of aging science.
When asked what advice he would give to students considering a PhD in the Biology of Aging, he says, “Follow your passion. I say that because we are still building the field of aging research and how we can translate it to medicine. That can be challenging. We have a long road ahead, but I’m very excited.”
As for the future, Dr. Haghani is looking forward to taking his research further. He says the startup culture moves quickly and it’s hard to predict where things will be in a few years. A return to an academic setting someday is not out of the question.
And Dr. Haghani is still in contact with Dr. Finch and others at USC. “Dr. Finch and I meet for lunch every few months to catch up and share ideas,” he says. “I also recently attended an alumni dinner and saw many of my former professors and colleagues. I respect them so much and see them as friends.”
To learn more about PhD programs at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, call us at (213) 740-5156.
To connect with Dr. Haghani: