By: Cristóbal McKinney
UI Strategic Communications

An interdisciplinary project aimed at curing blindness was what originally drew

Research. In April 2013, Zarei learned about the institute while still a senior at West High School in Iowa City. Before he graduated, he was hired by his current mentor, Dr. Michael Abràmoff, a professor working in ophthalmology, electrical and computer engineering, and biomedical engineering.

A third-year biomedical engineering major, Zarei is also a research assistant at the Wynn Institute, where he leads a number of independent research projects, including a vision test for Alzheimer’s disease.

Out of the 24 student employees nominated, Zarei and nine others will be recognized with certificates of appreciation or distinction. All were nominated by their supervisors for their reliability and the quality of their work, as well as their initiative, professionalism, and the uniqueness of their contributions.

The Student Employee of the Year honor is awarded based on criteria established by the National Student Employment Association. Students are nominated by their supervisors for reliability, quality of work, initiative, professionalism, and uniqueness of contribution. Visit the Office of Student Financial Aid to learn more.

Zarei was nominated because he has consistently surpassed expectations. According to Abràmoff, Zarei has distinguished himself not only among other undergraduate employees at the institute but among the graduate students as well. And he’s more than just a student: “Kasra has proved to be a valuable asset to my lab’s work,” Abràmoff says.

Shortly after beginning at the institute, Zarei was assigned a project that was expected to require possibly a year or more to complete—he finished it in two months. You would expect this type of work from graduate students, explains Abràmoff, but Zarei is an undergraduate, which makes his accomplishments exceptional and promising.

In 2015, Zarei received campuswide attention for winning both an Excellence in Undergraduate Research Award and a Goldwater Scholarship, the premiere undergraduate award for students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Zarei is close to publishing a first-author paper on one of the several applications he has developed—one promising to improve animal testing for glaucoma. He completed his honors thesis as a sophomore.

Zarei also developed novel vision-testing software that can run on a smart phone. If validated, this test could become a useful screening tool for eye disease, as well as for Alzheimer's and other telemedicine applications.

“Being able to truly take ownership of professional-level work in the sciences has been gratifying and educational in so many ways,” says Zarei. “While this is an area of our higher-education system that has to be refined, I do believe that experience working (in whatever discipline or position) truly augments the educational experience of a student in a way that cannot be achieved currently inside the classroom.”

After completing his undergraduate education, Zarei hopes to expand his research experiences in grad school. He wants to become a professor in order to teach and mentor his own students.

“I’m deeply interested in getting involved with academic administrative responsibilities on a local and national level, where I can help improve the state of higher education and STEM education nationwide,” he says.

The UI began recognizing student employees of the year in 1995. Since then, 10 of the 21 students selected have worked in one of the UI’s many health care–related departments.

Of the 32,150 students at Iowa, about 7,000 are employed by the university and about 1,000 hold work-study positions.

“The university wants to thank all of its student employees for their contributions, without which the university could not reach its goals,” says Cynthia Seyfer, senior associate director of the Office of Student Financial Aid. From April 11 to 15, supervisors across campus are celebrating National Student Employment Week to to show their appreciation.

Seyfer says being employed by the university can also play a significant role in student success.

“Student employment is a win-win,” she says. “Employers are able to work with students who often bring cutting-edge knowledge from the classroom to the job. Students get an opportunity to develop transferable skills for future employment. The retention and graduation rates are higher for student employees than for their non-working peers. A common misconception is that student employees have less time for academics, but the average student employee’s GPA matches and sometimes surpasses that of their non-working peers.”

President Bruce Harreld will honor Zarei and nine other student employees during an April 15 luncheon at the President’s Residence.