Meet Najva Akbari

Photo of Najva Akbari

Najva Akbari is on her way to becoming an optics expert who applies multi-photon microscopy to biological systems. Akbari is a doctoral student in Professor Chris Xu’s research group at Cornell. “I want to find the theoretical limits of three-photon microscopy,” says Akbari. This dual focus on theoretical limits and practical applications is a hallmark of Cornell’s School of Applied and Engineering Physics (AEP).

Akbari grew up in Iran and her father is a mechanical engineer. “I really liked electromagnetics in high school,” says Akbari. “I asked my physics teacher what I should study in college and he recommended electrical engineering, so that is what I did.”

Akbari earned her B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).  During her years at UCLA, she held two summer internships in industry. “Those jobs helped me see that what I really wanted to do was research and exploratory work,” says Akbari. “And to do work like that I would need to get a Ph.D.”

Akbari spoke with Chris Xu at a conference and found she was interested in his work. Her advisor at UCLA knew Professor Xu from their days at Bell Labs together. She decided to apply to Cornell, but Akbari also applied to several other doctoral programs and was fairly certain she was going to go somewhere other than Cornell for her degree. “But then I came to visit,” says Akbari, “and my plans changed. Cynthia Reynolds in AEP was so attentive and on top of everything. I could see that people in the department were connected in a way I hadn’t seen in other schools. It was a real community here.”

At Cornell, Akbari knew she wanted to work on imaging technology and methods. Now in her fourth year as a doctoral student, she has hit her stride working with a new three-photon microscope located in Weill Hall. “The goal is to have a user-friendly three-photon microscope that can be adapted to various projects,” say Akbari. “There needs to be an interface between the technology and the biology--somebody who can translate the technology to biology and make the biological experiments happen."

Akbari is currently using the microscope in her work on two separate projects with professors from Cornell’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. Her work with Professor Andy Bass focuses on the tiny Danionella Dracula fish, which is relatively transparent and has the smallest known vertebrate brain. With Professor Joe Fetcho, Akbari is using multi-photon microscopy to image an intact living adult zebrafish. Zebrafish are not as transparent, but using multi-photon microscopy Fetcho has been able to “watch” as these zebrafish build their brains and neural networks.


While much less complex than the brains and nervous systems of humans, the neurobiology of Dracula fish and zebrafish can teach us much about how our own brains develop and work.

As Bass and Fetcho learn more about these fish, Akbari learns more about the capabilities and limits of three-photon microscopy. Asked about her future plans, Akbari says, “I used to think that I only wanted to be a professor, but now I know that what I really want is the same thing I wanted as an undergrad: to do interesting research and exploratory work. That might mean as a professor, but it could also mean in a different setting. I want to be the optics expert who applies physics to biological systems.”


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