13 March 2024

After a childhood marked by displacement, Bijar Ghafouri came to a place where she could stay.
“In Sweden I got the opportunity to study what I wanted. Age or gender didn’t matter,” she says. Today, she is a professor of pain biochemistry researching what happens in the body during long-term pain.

headshot of a woman smiling.Bijar Ghafouri study biological changes in long-term pain conditions. Photo credit Emma Busk Winquist

When Bijar Ghafouri came to Sweden at the age of 17, she had already fled many times before, to new cities and new countries. The difference was that here there was a sense of security.headshot of a woman.“I’m proud of my journey. I hope to inspire others to dare to see and take advantage of the opportunities offered,” says Bijar Ghafouri. Photo credit Emma Busk Winquist

“I felt I could stay here. I don’t have to flee anymore.”

Being constantly displaced, her schooling was fragmented. New classes and subjects that needed to be retaken. As she came to Sweden without her upper secondary school grades, she had to go through the entire upper secondary school at Komvux adult education. She quit several times. The course books were expensive and sometimes she had to work in home care to make ends meet.

After finishing her studies at Komvux, the road was open to studying at university. Her husband Mohammad Omar had been offered a job in Norway, but they agreed to focus on her education, rather than moving again.

“I come from a background characterised by a culture of honour, where many believed that a woman who is married and has children should primarily devote her time to the family and not to studies. I really wanted to study, because education is very important to me.”

When she started the chemistry program at Linköping University, they had a 2-year-old daughter. Another daughter was born while she was studying. Mohammad brought the children to campus so that Bijar could breastfeed during breaks. They lived on her study grant. It was a tough time.

“My husband has been very supportive. Also, I’ve always tried to involve my family. The kids were with me all the time when I was studying. They loved to play in Märkesbacken at the university and every time I’d sat an exam we celebrated in the evening.”

Celebrating an exam meant that the whole family slept on a mattress in the living room, which the girls loved. They had popcorn and played together – one of the children’s favourite games was piggybacking on their father. As she had to resit many of her exams, there were many sleep-on-mattress celebrations.

The right place at the right time

She attributes her continued career in research to having been in the right place at the right time. The university promoted protein research and the mass spectrometry method, which she used in her degree project. She was asked if she wanted to become a doctoral student. She said no.female professor in exam room at a clinic.Bijar Ghafouri uses her chemistry skills in research on pain. She currently leads the PAINOMICS research group, where researchers from different disciplines work together to understand what happens in chronic pain conditions. Photo credit Emma Busk Winquist

“I didn’t know what doctoral studies were. I’d just graduated and felt that I’d had enough of education.”

But the researcher who was looking for a doctoral student was told by one of Bijar’s classmates that she had completed her university programme while having two young children. He came back and said: “Then you can manage doctoral studies as well.” And that is what happened.

“I’ve realised that I’m a person who fits in academia. I’m always looking for new challenges and opportunities to use my imagination. Sure, you acquire new knowledge all the time, but that’s no good if you just accumulate knowledge without using your imagination to find new opportunities and solutions.”

A chemist doing medical research

Given that she is fundamentally a chemist, it is perhaps a little surprising that Bijar Ghafouri is researching pain. More specifically, she and her research group PAINOMICS are studying biological changes in long-term pain conditions. These include fibromyalgia, whiplash pain or pain following nerve damage.

I don’t want to give up, because I see the patient’s face in front of me.
a nurse tests a young woman's pain threshold.Bijar Ghafouri’s driving force is to understand complex pain better and help those affected. Photo credit Emma Busk Winquist

The researchers measure a variety of molecules, such as proteins and fat molecules, in blood, saliva and spinal fluid. They can also take samples from the pain-affected muscle.

“We can visualise that something is happening in patients with long-term pain. The molecular profile in the different body fluids does not look the same for a patient compared to a healthy person.”

Patients at the Pain and Rehabilitation Clinic at the University Hospital in Linköping are asked if they want to participate in the research. A large percentage say yes. And it is the contact with people that makes Bijar Ghafouri convinced that she will never tire of doing research.

“I don’t want to give up, because I see the patient’s face in front of me.”Pain threshold measurement on a leg.The trial participant’s pain thresholds are measured with a device that gradually increases pressure on the skin. When the feeling of pressure becomes pain, they press a button. This will record the pressure that caused muscle pain. Photo credit Emma Busk Winquist

One test that some study participants get to do is to move small wooden cylinders on a board for twenty minutes. For a healthy person, it’s a monotonous and boring task, but it doesn’t hurt. For patients, the test triggers the worst possible shoulder pain. Bijar Ghafouri recalls a woman crying while performing the test.

“I reminded her that she could stop if it was too painful. But she wanted to finish it, even though it hurt so badly that she cried. She said it meant so much to her that someone finally believed that she really was in pain, that it wasn’t just her imagining things. This has been with me throughout my research journey.”

Better treatment is the goal

Finding out which molecules are affected by chronic pain is pure detective work. The goal is to develop better tools for diagnosing and treating pain conditions.

“Today, for example, all fibromyalgia patients are lumped together. But we see in our research that there are subgroups within the large group that differ from each other.”

Without the close cooperation between the university and the region this research could not be done. In many long-term pain conditions, psychosocial parameters are also important.

“We look at the whole picture and want to take all factors into consideration. We don’t think it’s just about molecules, we must also take into account what the patients themselves describe. I hope that soon we can define different subgroups and contribute to better ways of diagnosing and treating their pain.”two test tubes with blood.The researchers measure different molecules in e.g. blood and saliva. Bijar Ghafouri meets many of the patients and the meetings are a strong motivation to drive the research further. Photo credit Emma Busk Winquist

Samples from the pain patients in Östergötland are collected in a biobank. Work is now underway to extend this biobank to the whole of Sweden.

“Many years ago when I started, no clinic was interested in this kind of research. But interest has increased as we presented our results. I’m very proud that we’ll soon have a national pain biobank.”

Bijar Ghafouri's journey

Anna Nilsen and Karin Söderlund Leifler

Meet Bijar

Bijar Ghafouri came to Sweden at the age of 17. She had already fled many times during her childhood. In Sweden she found a sense of security and the opportunity to study.

Today, she is a professor of pain biochemistry at Linköping University, researching what happens in the body in long-term pain.

An inspiring honorary doctor

Bijar's role model

Fighting honour-based violence

One of Bijar Ghafouri’s role models is Sara Mohammad, who was made an honorary doctor at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in 2017 for “her fearless and courageous commitment to the rights of girls and younger women”.

“She was 17 years old when she left the culture of honour and came to Sweden, studied, became a pharmacist and was appointed an honorary doctor. That's really cool.”

Sara Mohammad founded the non-profit organisation “Glöm aldrig Pela och Fadime” (never forget Pela and Fadime), which works against honour-related violence and oppression. These are issues that Bijar Ghafouri also is passionate about.

“I’ve become stronger. Now I dare to stand up against what I think is injustice”.

More about the research group

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