Fariba Dehghani is a Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Sydney University. She is Director of the Centre for Advanced Food Enginomics and has been recognised by Engineers Australia as one of the nation’s top 50 Engineers for Innovation. Originally from Iran, Fariba came to Australia in 1992 and obtained her PhD from UNSW Chemical Engineering in 1997.

What’s the overall mission of your work?

Reducing the burden of chronic disease and creating a safe, sustainable and secure food supply are two of society’s biggest challenges. The central focus of my work is to provide solutions for these issues by developing innovative solutions in products, processes and supply chains to promote human wellbeing globally.

What sort of research projects are you currently involved in?

My research is in two different areas. The first is related to designing materials, particularly hydrogels, which can mimic the mechanical and physical properties of the tissues in our body for use in medical devices, medical applications and disease diagnosis.

The second investigates how we can produce sustainable, healthy food products for our growing population. This includes examining the effects of food structure and composition on health, for example the role of microbiota and food to minimise disease; looking at future food processing methods, such as reusing plant ‘waste’ to create useful proteins for new food products; and developing innovations in the supply chain that maximise food safety and efficiency.

What got you interested in engineering and your research field?

I have always liked to be creative and to solve problems. Engineering has been a wonderful career in which to do both. It’s particularly enjoyable to have skills at the interface of engineering and medicine that help me to support the community and improve peoples’ lives. I also thrive in a multidisciplinary setting and find it fulfilling to work alongside and collaborate with scientists, clinicians and other engineers.

Can you describe a favourite memory from doing your PhD at UNSW?

I really enjoyed working with my supervisor. I was his first female PhD candidate and when I started, my daughter was still very young. This could have been a barrier, but he was very flexible and encouraged me towards my full potential. Of course, I worked very hard, but whenever I needed help to support my family, he was there. He tried to make everything easy for me and I’ll never forget when he said, “I’m going to buy you a computer so you can look after your child and do some of your work from home.”

What career or life advice would you give to your 13-18-year-old self?

I would say to always be curious and learn, particularly science, maths, physics and other subjects that really stretch your brain. However, balance is important so enjoy sport to build your physical strength alongside your mental strength. It is also important to focus on interaction and teamwork, because these skills will remain with you forever.