Profile: Mahan Ghafari
Mahan Ghafari (2018, DPhil Interdisciplinary Bioscience), Oxford-Radcliffe Scholar, is particularly interested in virus evolution and since March has been working on COVID-19 research. Prior to joining Oxford, Mahan spent one year as a visiting student in Cambridge. He did his Master’s in Physics at Emory University and BSc in Physics at Sharif University of Technology.
How did you come to Univ to do a DPhil?
I was offered a position at the doctoral training programme in 2018 reading for interdisciplinary bioscience. Univ supported me through a very generous Oxford-Radcliffe scholarship which fully pays for my tuition, provides me with a living stipend, and much more.
Give your specialist subject pitch.
My main research focuses on virus evolution and the biological processes that can alter the rate at which they evolve over time. Understanding these mechanisms enables us to do molecular dating and estimate the age of various virus species that lived over millions of years ago.
More recently in 2020, as the pandemic hit Europe and started the epidemic in the UK back in March, I, like many other members of the Zoology Department based in the Peter Medawar Building for pathogen research, became heavily involved in working on different aspects of the COVID-19. In particular, my work focuses on estimating the rate of evolution of the virus and how it spreads across the population in different countries.
Do you think you’ve changed since you started at Univ?
Absolutely! I think, in so many ways, my life has changed since I came to Univ. I am humbled and thankful for all the great experiences and opportunities that I’ve been given at Univ which have not only enabled me to advance my knowledge in the field of research that I’m currently working on, but also allowed me to have a much broader worldview and better perspective through meeting and networking with so many amazing people: students, staff, and alumni of the College.
How has coronavirus affected your work and life?
I think we can all agree that 2020 has been quite a different year for us in so many ways. But on a more personal level, I suddenly found myself at the forefront of research on a subject that has significant direct implications for the public. Our group at Oxford, in collaboration with scientists from other institutions in the UK and abroad, performed a thorough investigation into the epidemic in Iran where we tried to answer some of the pressing questions. When did the epidemic start in the country? How many people were infected? How many people died? And many more. Never have I felt such an awesome responsibility when doing my research and the pressure that comes with every single word and action I take in response to these challenging times. The feeling has just been overwhelming and I admit that I’m still processing all the things that have happened since early March. It’s certainly been life-changing for me.
What role do you think the media plays (or could play) in science communication?
Oh, I feel like I can write a 5000-word essay on just that and all the good/bad examples I personally experienced during this pandemic! There’s no doubt that media has such a huge impact on informing the public. But if I were to pick one pressing issue, I’d say the circulation of disinformation and misinformation about the pandemic, from false claims that COVID-19 is “just like the flu” to “anti-vaccine movements” causing distrust and further endangering public health.
One of my favourite science communicators during this pandemic has been Sir David Spiegelhalter who has always emphasised on the importance of transparency and openness when communicating scientific findings so as to galvanise public response, reduce anxiety, and establish trust with the public. For example, I remember in the early days of the pandemic, social media was flooded with conflicting information about various things such as wearing facemasks. Particularly under such circumstances, having a reliable expert with relevant knowledge on the matter to talk before the public is of the utmost importance and the media plays a huge role in giving a platform to the right people at the right time to address the issues.
Have you found anything about Univ/Oxford surprising?
I spent about a year at Cambridge before coming to Oxford, so I think I was familiar with some of the distinctive collegiate characteristics of Oxbridge like wearing sub fusc or dining in giant formal halls. But all formalities aside, perhaps what surprised me the most was how kind all the staff members of the College are, especially the chaplain, Rev. Andrew Gregory, who helped me navigate through some difficult times in my life.
What do you do to relax?
Listening to music has always been my way of relaxing and bringing back focus. I also enjoy hiking at Port Meadow from time to time. But much to my surprise, binge-watching the Star Trek Discovery series on Netflix has been a good distraction during this pandemic and helped me find a moment of tranquillity!
Describe Univ in three words.
Supportive, inspiring, and peaceful!
Mahan is active on Twitter and Instagram.
Published: 7 December 2020