Rostam Zafari is a 20-year-old Iranian American from Atlanta studying social entrepreneurship and creative writing at Emory University. He is especially interested in designing impactful solutions in the fields of healthcare and education. At 18, he helped create a rapid test strip for Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) for which he was awarded the 2015 Cyrus Prize. Currently, he is the President & Co-Founder of Mystro, a platform that connects high-achieving college students with local high school students for tutoring in standardized testing. PAAIA recently reached out to Rostam to learn more about his inspiring story and his startup successes.
How did you gain a research position at Emory University at the age of 14?
My dad is a professor at Emory University and he got me hooked on science at an early age. Even when we were kids, he wouldn’t let us turn summer into one long vacation. Instead, he had us focus on learning and getting hands-on experience. That’s why my brother Zaal and I interned at different places each summer like at a genetics lab or at our local Decatur fire department.
What inspired you to create REDS, and what was the process in creating the test?
REDS (Rapid Ebola Detection Strips) was a project that two friends and I began in 2014 to create a faster and more effective strip test for Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). It was started in response to an extra-credit challenge from our biology professor Rachelle Spell. Creating the test began by working out the theory on paper with basic biological concepts, asking professors for feedback, crowd-funding necessary funds, securing a lab, ordering necessary materials, writing protocols, and testing and improving the strip.
The project is still ongoing and is currently in the patent review process. There will be an in-depth and detailed write up of our journey that you can check out at rostamzafari.com
How was growing up in Atlanta as an Iranian American, and are you involved in the Iranian American community there?
I like to surround myself with value creators as often as I can, and if they are Persian American, great! If they’re not, great! I think that culture, history, literature, and language are beautiful things and I enjoy having conversations about them. I don’t believe in drawing up arbitrary lines since the very idea of nations will be out-of-date soon. The world is one place. It’s some land separated by some salt water.
I look forward to the day we discover Pangaea again.
How did your cultural identity as a Iranian American shape your career path?
More than anything, it’s the Persian and American literature (and their philosophies) that has guided me.
On the Persian side, my grandfather got me hooked on the Shahnameh, in which the sun-bird phoenix known as Simorgh bestows a hero with three feathers. Anytime the world is in trouble, the hero lights a feather and Simorgh appears to grant a wish and help the hero save the day. The Shahnameh is 60,000 verses long, but only 2 feathers were lit. The message is clear: Light the last feather. Be the hero. Save the day. This is your story.
On the American side, see for yourself. Talk with Whitman’s Learn’d Astronomer, go fishing with Hemingway’s Old Man, and do some yard work with William Carlos William’s Red Wheelbarrow. The message is clear: Discover. Strive. Work hard.
My point is that good literature distills the best of a culture, and the more works you read from different cultures, the more you enrich your life.
Oh, and I love ghormeh sabzi. That stuff has totally shaped my career path.
What made you focus on the fields of healthcare and education, and the use of startups in gaining entry in these fields?
I know that the greatest issues of the world: hunger, energy, water, education, healthcare, and many others can be solved using the compassion, creativity, sustainability, and scalability that social entrepreneurship embodies. These problems are not inherent problems that have to exist. They are design problems. If we design a better world, we can attain it.
The current empires and monopolies are obviously not going to be the ones to redesign and reimagine what the world could be because they are comfortable with their current position. Start-ups dare to do what others can’t even imagine because they have something to prove and technology empowers that something-to-prove through the level of unprecedented connection and exposure it provides.
What role do you and your team will play in impacting education?
Only time will tell the impact we can make, but if we can say we increased access to education even if it’s simply to one more person, then I’d call it a success.
What is your goal for the future, and does it overlap with the Iranian American community?
My future goals come out of my present belief that the world’s problems and sufferings are not inherent things, just the consequences of poor design. I’d like to build an NGO that can solve the world’s most pressing problems by designing intelligent, scalable, and sustainable solutions with an awesome (and slightly crazy) group of people.