Mechatronics master's student Zahra Haeri is a burgeoning martial artist and recently landed her dream job with General Motors.

Mechatronics student masters martial arts, lands top engineering job

May 15, 2017

If you’re looking for Zahra Haeri, you’ll probably find the mechatronics master’s student tinkering away in SFU’s biomedical engineering lab, or tackling an opponent on the mat.

A jiu-jitsu mat, to be precise.

Haeri, who is part of a team developing a diagnostic tool for detecting breast cancer, is also a burgeoning martial artist. Since starting jiu-jitsu training less than 18 months ago, she already has two gold and two silver medals under her blue belt.

To top things off, she recently landed her dream job with General Motors, several months before her thesis defense this July.

“I initially interviewed for a co-op job, but in the end they offered me a full-time permanent position after graduation,” says Haeri. “I was in the post office when I got the news. I was so happy, I wanted to hug the postman.” 

Haeri traces her interest in General Motors back to her childhood growing up in Iran, where she helped her engineer father at his manufacturing company, and spent her free time reading up on car specs.

“I remember one article that made a big impact on me—it was about the head designer of BMW,” says Haeri. “He was also Persian, and that made me so proud. I thought about how much I would really like to work for a big car company someday.”

Her wish came true in March 2017, when she was offered the role of vehicle diagnostic engineer with General Motors at their headquarters in Markham, Ontario.

A few weeks later, on April 15, she earned a gold medal at the Copa Katana Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament held in the Richmond Olympic Oval, facing seven competitors in the adult featherweight division.

The medal joins her ever-growing collection, including a Western Canadian Martial Arts Championships silver, and a gold and silver from two local tournaments.

It’s a well-deserved success, following months of balancing a busy research schedule with a gruelling training regime

“I train every day for about two hours a day— that’s seven per cent of my life,” she says.

“On a typical day, I wake up at 7 a.m., go to the clinic for my research, come back to the university lab, leave at 5 p.m. for training, and finish up at 9 p.m. Then, I wake up, and do it all over again.”

In addition to working hard in the pursuit of perfection, Haeri has found other common ground between engineering and jiu-jitsu, a popular self-defence technique.

“Jiu-jitsu is a physical sport, but it’s also a mental art; for many of the techniques, you need to understand human body mechanics,” says Haeri. 

“For example, to execute the arm bar move, you need to know how to apply force to the elbow in order to avoid resistance.” 

But toughness on the mat is just one part of Haeri’s story.

At SFU, she has been working with a team led by professor Farid Golnoraghi to develop an optical diagnostic probe capable of more safely and non-invasively detecting early stage breast cancer.

“As a woman, there is a connection between my feelings and our research in breast cancer,” says Haeri, who worked on the study’s data analysis. “I know this could affect me or someone I know someday, and this guides my research in a positive way.”  

Next September, Haeri will join the team at General Motors in Ontario, where she plans to continue with her martial arts training and also complete a PhD in business – another one of her passions.