Ahmad Ziaee of SSPC is standing outdoors in front of greenery and smiling into the camera.
Ahmad Ziaee. Image: SSPC

‘Being a researcher is being a lifelong learner, which is the most amazing thing’

4 Aug 2020

Researcher Ahmad Ziaee shares his vision for the future of vaccines based on his ongoing work at SSPC, the SFI research centre in UL.

Ahmad Ziaee is a process engineer and scientist at SSPC, the SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals based in the Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick.

In his role, he works closely with industry partners to better produce more stable, efficient and safe drugs. Here, he talks about his work exploring transferring vaccines from liquid to solid form and his daily routine as a researcher.

‘It doesn’t matter if I fail or succeed. For me, the journey is of equal importance to the goal’

What experiences led you to the role you have now?

I have been always fascinated by how raw materials are processed into products that we use on a daily basis. It is amazing how many products are being used every day that are taken for granted, however many researchers and engineers have been working in the background to develop them.

I got my undergraduate degree in materials science and engineering with a specialty in ceramics. I worked on refractory powders and how to shape and optimise their properties using various special techniques.

With the experience of handling challenging industrial projects, I joined the Bernal Institute working on simulating the adsorption of carbon dioxide in porous materials called metal-organic materials for my master’s degree. The invaluable experience of working under Prof Michael Zaworotko as a subject world leader opened the horizon of my knowledge of materials at a molecular level.

Thereafter, I joined Prof Gavin Walker and Dr Emmet O’Reilly’s research groups to work on an SSPC project called Momentum. This was a single industry partner project with Janssen. It put me in a higher level of engagement with industry researchers at senior levels. A multinational collaboration between different sites of Janssen in Belgium, Puerto Rico and Switzerland gave me the opportunity to learn project management while working on a multidisciplinary project.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Vaccines are usually produced in liquid form that should be kept at low temperatures. This means the vaccines should be transferred to the most remote areas in the world with a vehicle equipped with a refrigerator.

This is a huge challenge as this kind of equipment is not available in all areas. Therefore, I work to transfer the liquid vaccine formulations to solid forms that can be kept at room temperature for a long period of time without any harm to their efficacy.

I use a method called spray drying for drying vaccines into powders. Our lab is highly equipped with process and analysis equipment, which allows us to work on these complex formulation strategies.

What first stirred your interest in this area?

I have always thought about how my research can impact the community, country or even the whole world. Therefore, working on processing pharmaceutical powders was a perfect fit for the perspective I always had in mind for myself as an engineer and scientist.

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day for you?

As a researcher, I always follow a basic routine while at the same time, allowing for a large amount of flexibility in my daily schedule to accommodate collaborations, discussions and meetings. So, a typical day starts with waking up with my wife and our daughter, having a breakfast (my favourite meal of the day), tea and coffee and dropping my daughter off and then going to our offices. Actually, we share an office as my wife is also a PhD researcher with SSPC. This is kind of a family business now!

Checking my daily schedule on my calendar and answering the prioritised emails is my first action for no more than 30 minutes. Then heading to the lab to follow up the analysis and samples preparations. I use X-rays, a scanning electron microscope and many other spectroscopic characterisation techniques to analyse my samples and how they have been formed.

At noon, as we normally cook at home, we have our lunch with friends and colleagues followed by a nice coffee to get ready for the afternoon session. This session consists of either continuing the work in the lab or being in the office and analysing the collected data, writing papers and reports, reading new research articles in the field and organising the work to be done for tomorrow.

In the case of a meeting, we usually organise it via Microsoft Teams between myself, my supervisor and collaborators in Switzerland, Belgium, the UK and Ireland. In the middle of all of these, I generally supervise several undergraduate or master’s students working towards their final year projects whom I have daily or weekly meetings with. I finish the day with the best refreshing activity, which is collecting my daughter from crèche and having a fun family evening together.

What skills and tools do you use on a daily basis?

There are a lot of hard and soft skills required for a scientist to be successful. Effective collaboration and communication with other researchers, supervisors and industrial partners is key to fruitful research. In addition to that, using project and time management skills is important in my work, especially with industry partners.

What applications do you foresee for this research?

I can see the day that most of the vaccines are distributed in powder form. These powders can be either used for preparing a solution for injection or inhaled directly into the lung with a much higher efficiency.

My research can, in a way, revolutionise the traditional ways of vaccination. Think about people that have trypanophobia, which is an extreme fear of medical procedures, such as using a needle. The vaccination via inhalation could be the ultimate solution for their case. However, there is still a long way to go and many other researchers are working on this issue.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

One of the misconceptions, especially about vaccines, is that some of the them are responsible for other diseases. This idea has been rejected with strong scientific evidence so far, but still an increasing amount of people are debating the safety of vaccines.

I would like to note that the pharmaceutical industry has one of the most highly regulated areas of research, development and manufacture, which is all implemented in order to minimise the risk of safety issues. Every vaccine, in order to be developed, has been tested on different scales for a vast number of volunteers with verified efficacy and safety.

As part of SSPC, I contribute to the public outreach programme, which is a fantastic opportunity to increase the public awareness of the safety of vaccines and their important role in maintaining public health.

When you first started work as a researcher, what were you most surprised to learn was important in the role?

The presence of a highly experienced mentor that can advise the researcher, especially when you encounter a bottleneck in the research project, is very important. A good mentor could be family, partners, friends or supervisors that you can share your ideas, feelings and thoughts with about different aspects of life of a researcher.

What do you enjoy most about your career in research?

I enjoy exploring new ideas. It doesn’t matter if I fail or succeed. For me, the journey is of equal importance to the goal. Being a researcher is being a lifelong learner which, to me, is the most amazing thing.

I love learning, sharing and experiencing the unknown. Therefore, I try to embrace every second of it and do my best to improve the quality of drugs of the future. I suppose, the most important thing is that I love what I do. I could have never thought of doing something else than what I do now.

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