LANCASTER — Antelope Valley College biology professor Zia Nisani’s face lit up when he talked about milking scorpions for their venom, or using a hand-held black light to search for scorpions in the desert with his students.
It’s easy to see how Nisani’s passion for creepy crawlies can inspire students. His biology research led to multiple published peer-reviewed articles, including the venom-spraying behavior of scorpions.
Scorpions, when held or threatened by a predator, will spray their venom similar to an aerosol. If you inhale enough or it goes in your eyes, the venom will cause you to sneeze.
“I used to milk them to take their venom out,” Nisani said.
He milked them without a hood to protect himself. That caused him to inhale the venom.
“Then I noticed I would be sneezing uncontrollably for hours because vessels start rupturing,” Nisani said.
If you handle a scorpion, it will likely hit you with a dry strike initially. If the threat is persistent, the scorpion will use its venom. That is more out of self-preservation for the scorpion, Nisani explained. His research demonstrated a scorpion’s venom is metabolically expensive.
“So it makes sense for them to save it,” Nisani said.
Nisani, 50, who is of Assyrian descent, grew up in Kuwait.
“Ever since I was a kid I was into bugs,” Nisani said. “I would sit there for hours watching an ant nest and record what they’d bring in.”
He also used his mother’s nail polish to mark darkling beetles to identify them and see if he could track them in the desert.
“I wasn’t successful,” Nisani said
Nisani never outgrew his curiosity.
“To me scientists are like children with expensive toys,” Nisani said. “I’m in awe with the natural world.”
Nisani has a bachelor of science in Environmental Biology and a master of science in Organismal, Ecological and Conservation Biology from San Jose State University. He also has doctorate in biology and physiology on the behavioral ecology of scorpion venom expenditure from Loma Linda University.
Nisani enjoys research and teaching. He started doing research projects with his students. One of the first papers they published was on the sense of smell of scorpions. He has published papers with five different students.
“Imagine you have an undergrad publish a paper,” Nisani said.
Nisani uses science research as a teaching tool.
“That’s my passion. I love teaching but more importantly I love sharing what I know,” Nisani said.
Nisani added their goal is to set up an undergraduate research institute at AV College.
Nisani was named AV College’s 2018-19 Scholar in Residence at the annual AV College Faculty Recognition event on May 1.
“I was shocked and humbled,” Nisani said. “I didn’t know I was nominated.”
There are six criteria for the award: The scholar is a full-time member of the college’s teaching staff who increases knowledge for a discipline, brings credit to the college, is a compassionate and skillful educator who facilitates visionary insight for students, is acknowledged by the educational community as a learned individual and demonstrates persistent dedication to innovation and excellence in education.
The Scholar in Residence is chosen by a vote of the Academic Senate, the college’s faculty governing body. Seven of Nisani’s peers nominated him for the honor.
“There were some really great names on the program that had also been nominated. I think the cancer gave me an edge,” Nisani said. “I approach everything with a sense of humor.”
He was diagnosed last year with stage 3 colon cancer. He is cancer free now.
“I had so much support,” Nisani said. “ We’re a family at AVC.”
Nisani started his AV College career as an adjunct biology professor in 2002. He became a full-time instructor in 2008, and became tenured in 2012.
“I like collecting all bugs,” Nisani said.
His wife, Yolanda, is an air traffic controller.
“I think she is the most supporting person I’ve ever had,” Nisani said.
They married in August 2001 when Nisani was working on his master’s degree. His thesis focused on the parasitic wasp.
“In our honeymoon suite I had a setup of my whole insect lifestyle. And she was quite supportive. I knew I made the right decision,” Nisani said.
Nisani also kept 70 scorpions in the house too at one point. He and his son Xavian, 8, once spent a Christmas Eve feeding them crickets. The couple also have a 3-year-old son, Julian.