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Faculty Focus
By Ranaan Geberer

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Amir Niknejad spends much of his time detecting patterns in genetic data. He then applies this knowledge of mathematics and statistics to systems biology.
In addition to his love of numbers, Dr. Niknejad is very dedicated to his students, from those with very little math background to advanced math majors.

Dr. Niknejad came to the U.S. from Iran to pursue advanced graduate studies. Growing up, his family had an immense respect for learning.

“My mother couldn’t read or write, but when I was studying, she’d make me read to her,” he says, adding that she’d memorize each paragraph, and then quiz him on the material.

He entered Boston College expecting to pursue a career in physics, but switched fields when he developed an appreciation for the versatility and power of mathematics and its broad applications. Eventually, Dr. Niknejad earned a master’s in mathematical statistics from Claremont Graduate University and a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Illinois. Along the way, he worked for Polaroid as a research scientist, where he established a technology readiness program for employees.

He has held several research and teaching positions, the last as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Visiting Professor at East Tennessee State University. Three years ago, he decided tomove to New York and joined the Mount.

AmirAssistant Professor of Mathematics Amir Niknejad

Much of his research deals with microarrays, or DNA chips, in which microscopic DNA spots are attached to a surface by chemical means. The researcher detects patterns, and then converts the patters to numbers. Typically, of the thousands of genes, only a small number are significant to an experiment.

Dr. Niknejad’s book, Applications of Linear Algebra to DNA Microarrays, (with Shmuel Friedland), addresses the problems of how to restoremissing data on DNA microarrays that have been corrupted, and how to condense the enormous amount of information obtained.

“This research reflects how algebra and geometry can be used to examine disease and come up with a mathematical model for drug design,” he says.

One of Dr. Niknejad’s goals is to serve as a liaison between universities, pharmaceutical companies, and government research agencies to create a dialogue that would help efforts toward finding a cure for diseases such as cancer, HIV, and diabetes.

This past summer, he was invited by the Zuse Informatics Institute of Berlin, Germany to collaborate with their Scientific Computing group on a “computational drug design” project.

In recent years, both prion diseases, such as mad cow disease, and viral diseases, such as HIV or SARS, have attracted much public and political interest, says Dr. Niknejad.

Whenever any new disease is discovered, there is a highly competitive race to invent new drugs to combat it. This race typically starts with computers. Molecular drug design is a time and cost-intensive procedure, which utilizes many resources.

This is why the starting place for new pharmaceutical development begins using computers. Molecular interactions can be predicted and calculated on the basis of simulations in the forefront of design specifications. This can be done by developing fast algorithms using super computers, says Dr. Niknejad.

Members of the computational drug design project team hail from around the globe and a variety of backgrounds. Dr. Niknejad is excited and proud to be a part of this interdisciplinary research collaboration.

At the Mount, Dr. Niknejad’s door is always open to students. Soon after each term begins, he makes an individual appointment with each student.

“One of the advantages of being involved in research is sharing the story with my students and showing them that mathematics can save lives,” Dr. Niknejad says.