Professor finds “Ultimate Answers” in Physics

As an experimental biophysicist who studies the mechanical properties of biological macromolecules, Zahra Alavi, Ph.D., cherishes her time in the laboratory. “Getting to do meaningful, hands-on work where you’re making something, seeing it form in front of your eyes and discovering new things —it’s a really powerful feeling,” says Alavi, an assistant professor of physics at Loyola Marymount University.

The closure of LMU laboratories during the COVID-19 pandemic forced Alavi to pivot in her research efforts. Now, instead of toiling in her usual environs, she runs computational analyses to conduct the same types of experiments. Although Alavi would much rather be using her hands in the lab than solely on her computer, she continues to make progress.

Alavi is interested in the dynamics of proteins in the body that facilitate reactions essential to cellular functioning. The ability of the proteins to perform these essential biological tasks is related to their mechanical properties, which Alavi studies using a nano-rheology technique. that allows her to record the responses of tiny molecules to the application of mechanical force. At LMU, Alavi has established an experimental nano-rheology setup that only a few labs in the world share; patterned after a system designed at UCLA, where Alavi completed her Ph.D., it allows her to measure the sub-angstrom movements of proteins.

The results of these studies can have profound implications. “Most diseases are caused by dysfunctional proteins, and the ability of proteins to function properly is closely linked to their dynamics,” Alavi says. “What we learn as physicists is used by biochemists, and can ultimately be taken up by drug companies to design therapies that can improve our health.”

Alavi was drawn to physics at an early age. “I always thought if you wanted to understand the deepest questions of what is life, the ultimate answers were going to come from physics,” she says. Growing up in Iran, she attended a science-oriented high school, then earned her bachelor’s in physics from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran before coming to the U.S. for her graduate studies. Two weeks after completing her Ph.D.in 2017, she joined the faculty at LMU, where she has found an ideal home.

“I’m passionate about teaching —both of my parents are teachers, as are some of my uncles and aunts —and at LMU, the small class sizes allow you to have really meaningful interactions with your students,” Alavi says. “At the same time, I get to do research, which I love as well. It’s a perfect balance.”