The Erin Brockovich of Food Safety: How One Texas Engineer is Changing the World

February 15, 2022

Azita Sharif is concerned with what we eat. But she wasn’t always. This Texas Engineering alum has had a long career that has taken her to New York, Boston, and San Antonio, and prepared her with experiences that have put her in a prime place to address one of the great challenges we face: food safety.

Azita Sharif

After earning her B.S. and M.S. from UT Austin, where she studied cryogenic preservation cell design with one of her mentors Ken Diller, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, she began her career in research and development in the semiconductor industry. She continued working in technical support and product management before completing an exclusive venture capital fellowship, which she was recruited for by her other mentor at UT Austin, Dale Klein, a professor in the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering, with whom Sharif studied heat transfer.

“That phone call from Dale Klein changed the course of my professional career,” says Sharif, “I did 21 interviews in four different locations. Nine months later I was selected as one of 12 fellows in the charter class of this fellowship, which still continues today, 26 years later.”

After completing the fellowship, Sharif spent two years working as a principal investor at a venture capital firm in Boston, analyzing other people’s business plans. It was through this experience that Sharif decided she wanted to become an entrepreneur herself. She spent the next three years earning an MBA at Harvard Business School and a degree in diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

She then combined all that she had learned in engineering at UT Austin, in design and problem solving from her experiences in the semiconductor industry, in business from her life as a venture capitalist and Harvard MBA and in diplomacy from the Fletcher School to ultimately form her own biotech company: DSI.

DSI provides technology services beneficial to both the organ transplant and biobanking sectors. The company has created a platform that allows medical professionals to track transplant tissues from a living donor all the way through transplantation, which helps keep everyone involved compliant with medical regulations.

On the biobanking side, DSI has a platform that serves researchers. Specifically, providing oncologists and pathologists with data that enables precision medicine in the effort to determine the cause of and find a cure for cancer. Researchers use DSI’s tools to provide information in their grants to places like the National Institutes of Health.

It is through this exposure to oncology data collection that Sharif has taken interest in a public policy initiative: improving public access to healthy food in Massachusetts, where she currently lives, and eventually expanding these efforts nationwide.

“Unfortunately, in the U.S. right now, there’s not a person who hasn’t either experienced cancer themselves or known somebody who has it,” says Sharif. “I started thinking about how in the 50 years since President Nixon signed a National Cancer Act the problem has actually gotten worse, not better. Much of our research has been on figuring out cancer treatments, but we often overlook environmental factors such as the air we breathe and food we eat.”

Sharif says we focus on healthy food being low in fat and sugar because obesity has been a problem, but she wanted to know what’s really in the food we’re eating and how that may play a role in cancer.

“I go to a grocery store, and I pick up a strawberry, but do I know what’s in the cellular structure? Strawberries have the tendency to absorb whatever is in the soil, but do I know what’s really in the soil and what I’m consuming?”

Sharif did what any engineer would—she hooked up a strawberry to a mass spectrometer.

Azita Sharif collects soil samples from farms in Massachusetts and Texas. 

In this effort to find out what is in our food, Sharif recruited farmers in both Texas and Massachusetts to collect data. What she found is that many of the farms that produce our food are located near Superfund sites. Superfund sites are dormant locations that once hosted manufacturing facilities or chemical laboratories, anything from an old shoe factory to a nuclear engineering laboratory. There are 1400 Superfund sites in the U.S., which have been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as “mini Chernobyls.” Farms, houses, and parks can’t be built on Superfund sites because of pollution and toxicity. However, in her assessments, Sharif discovered that many of the farms where she was evaluating produce are located nearby Superfund sites.

“When I saw this data, the engineer in me began thinking about diffusion phenomena. How do I know that the arsenic that is in the Superfund site isn’t diffused through rainfall and water sources? Through the pure mechanics of motion, how do I know that the arsenic contained in nearby soil isn’t absorbed by a strawberry I’m eating that was grown down the road?”

Sharif says that like many people she tends to eat the same types of fruits, likely grown from the same sources. While our immune systems may prevent us from reacting to trace carcinogens, years of exposure to toxins that our bodies cannot excrete will eventually lead to cancer.“I call these trace carcinogens our invisible neighbors,” says Sharif. “We know that a tumor that becomes detectable didn’t start growing yesterday. It takes 15 years for that tumor to become detectable, so where is it coming from? I believe it’s likely it comes from the food we eat, and we just don’t know it.”

Sharif is using her skills in diplomacy to enact public policy. She has filed a bill in the Massachusetts legislature called H.1012, “An Act to Improve Public Access to Healthy Food.” If passed, the law would give consumers information about where our food comes from and whether or not the source had clean soil or water. Consumers will have more information about their food and be able to make choices based on that.”

The bill is currently co-sponsored in the Massachusetts legislature by several representatives and senators with either medical backgrounds or who have been touched by a family member who died of cancer or lived near a Superfund site.

Sharif’s ultimate goal is to bring this initiative to the federal government.

“In the 20th Century, our country enacted a Clean Water Act and a Clean Air Act,” says Sharif. “I think it’s also time we create a Clean Soil Act and a Clean Food Act.”

As she runs her biotech company, Sharif continues to work with legislative sponsors in Massachusetts and in the federal government. And when she’s not doing that, she’s on farms collecting samples to back up her work in food activism, for which she has been called a 21st century Erin Brockovich.

Sharif credits her education at UT Austin for helping her get where she is today and says the best asset education provides students is how to look at the world’s challenges and develop solutions.

“My education at UT Austin taught me how to look at a seemingly overwhelming problem and break it down into steps. Every professor of mine had us write down the problem statement, boundary condition, known facts, and assumptions,” says Sharif. “I can tell you that UT Austin does this incredibly well, and I’m privileged to have been a part of that.”