Alumni Honor Father With Gift to Department of Chemistry
When it came to commemorating their father’s life, two alumni and another sibling followed his lifelong example by giving back. Emery Pharma founder Ron Najafi (Ph.D., chemistry, ’89), ophthalmologist Kathryn (Katy) Najafi-Tagol (B.S., chemistry, ’90) and brother Alex established the Dr. Mohsen Najafi Pharmaceutical Chemistry Research Fund in the UC Davis Department of Chemistry.
Their gift will support research on new drug treatments for illnesses of the central nervous system, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. “Dementia is a devastating disease, and it is what my dad suffered from,” Ron Najafi said. “When he passed away in 2019, we wanted to do something special in his honor, and what better way than helping solve the problem of dementia.”
The Dr. Mohsen Najafi Pharmaceutical Chemistry Research Fund was established with a $15,000 gift from the Najafis and a $15,000 matching grant from the Department of Chemistry. The first recipient is Assistant Professor David Olson, who studies how psychedelic drugs affect the brain. Olson’s lab also develops safer alternatives for psychedelics, which are being tested for use in people. Olson currently focuses on compounds called psychoplastogens, which promote neural plasticity — cellular changes in neurons in the brain, such as boosting connections between nerve cells.
The Najafis grew up in Tehran, where their father, a pharmacist, led his own pharmaceutical company. He would often talk business, medicine and pharmaceuticals with his children, they recall. “We all have a love for chemistry because of his influence in our life,” Najafi-Tagol said.
Ron Najafi emigrated to the U.S. in 1976 to pursue a pharmacy degree at the University of Pittsburgh. He transferred to the University of San Francisco in 1978 to complete his degree, joining his older brother Alex, also a student at USF.
After the Iranian Revolution started in 1979, the rest of the family tried to join Ron and Alex in San Francisco. But the Najafis were forced off their plane by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who stopped the plane while it was on the runway preparing for takeoff. “I was about nine or 10 years old, and they separated me from my mom,” Najafi-Tagol recalls. “I will never forget that one hour of separation from my parents, and the scare tactics they used.”
The Najafis finally immigrated to the U.S. in 1983, reuniting with Ron and Alex in San Francisco. Najafi-Tagol said her father devoted himself to helping his children succeed in the U.S., including driving Katy to and from school every day. “My parents both thought education was of the utmost importance in life,” Najafi-Tagol said.
Following their father’s example, the Najafi siblings have all become successful business owners. Alex, the oldest, earned his master’s degree in political science and operates one of the largest dry cleaning businesses in the Bay Area. Ron finished his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry at the University of San Francisco. For his doctorate at UC Davis, he worked with Professor George Zweifel, a leader in organosilicone and boron chemistry, and has since founded four biotech companies. Katy, the youngest, followed Ron to Davis for her bachelor’s degree, then completed medical school at UCLA. She specializes in glaucoma and cataract surgery and founded her own practice, the Eye Institute of Marin.
Another lesson imparted to the Najafis by their parents was the importance of contributing to society and being of service to others. “We’re a family that thinks every little bit helps in taking action,” Ron Najafi said. A recent example is the independent testing conducted by Emery Pharma, the contract research organization Ron founded in 2011, which contributed to the FDA’s decision to remove the heartburn drug Zantac from the market. Ron and Katy have also collaborated on Avenova, a treatment for the eye inflammation called blepharitis, providing patients with an alternative to steroids and antibiotics.
The Najafis now hope to inspire other alumni to support research in chemistry at UC Davis. “It’s mind-boggling what we don’t know about dementia,” Ron Najafi said. “If everybody were to give back to their schools, across the country, then we could solve this problem.”
To follow in the Najafis’ footsteps and make a donation to the College, visit lettersandscience.ucdavis.edu/giving.