Negin Forouzesh, a doctoral candidate in the computer science department in the College of Engineering, has been honored as a 2020 Graduate Student of the Year for her excellence in research, teaching, and service.

After finishing her master’s degree in her native country of Iran, Forouzesh decided to pursue her post-graduate studies at Virginia Tech. Drawn to the university’s R1 distinction category (engagement in the highest levels of research activity), Forouzesh said her first and foremost priority was to become a better researcher.

It was her five semesters serving as a graduate teaching assistant that proved to be a pivotal moment for Forouzesh. “That exposure to teaching was a turning point that inspired me to choose my next career as a professor,” said Forouzesh.

This fall, Forouzesh will join the faculty at California State University, Los Angeles as a tenure-track assistant professor of computer science. Forouzesh looks forward to applying her computational biology and bioinformatics research in this new role. There are vast improvements she hopes to contribute to the modern drug design workflow, especially in a society currently stricken by COVID-19. 

“To me, teaching is the best way to give knowledge and skills back to the community,” Forouzesh said. “Successful people often have at least one memorable teacher who has inspired them to push through and stand on the summit of their field of expertise. I will be delighted to play a similar role in the future and keep this chain of mentorship unbroken.”

She found a perfect fit with her current advisor, Alexey Onufriev, and his research in computer science with applications for drug discovery in the Laboratory for Theoretical and Computational Molecular Biophysics.

“Mutually, my advisor found my background and enthusiasm matched what he was looking for in a new Ph.D. student,” Forouzesh said. 

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Admittedly, Forouzesh said she knew the interdisciplinary nature of her research in computational molecular biophysics would not be an easy endeavor.

“Negin joined my group around four years ago, where she made the decision to switch to this unfamiliar field, which would immediately be more challenging for her,” said Onufriev. “Negin has grown professionally from somebody who was trying to orient herself in the new field to a young researcher who understands key aspects of the scientific enterprise in the U.S.”

“Computational biology and bioinformatics address critical challenges related to the life sciences, and those posed to human health, habitat, and well-being,” said Forouzesh. “Research effort in this field is mainly focused on refining computational methods for diagnosis and treatment of human diseases. The target is closely aligned with my personal goals, and I am honored to be a member of this community.

“What makes drug discovery a slow process is mainly due to the required clinical examinations on patient cohorts,” Forouzesh said. “Now, assume that we had a super accurate and fast computational model that simulates all the important biological factors. Given that, we could shortcut current clinical trials and deliver the final drug much faster. This is certainly essential when it comes to dealing with pandemics such as the COVID-19 outbreak.”

While interning at the Stanford Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine in summer 2018, Forouzesh developed a cloud-based database of genetic variant annotations. During the Association for Computing Machinery Student Research Competition at the Grace Hopper Celebration, she took third place for one of her research projects, “Finding Optimal Dielectric Boundary for Practical Continuum Solvent Calculations.”

Negin Forouzesh at the Grace Hopper celebration
Forouzesh attended the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women in computing. The three-day celebration is inspired by the legacy of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, an influential tech pioneer who helped to create the first compiler for computer languages.

Forouzesh has been an active member of the computer science department since her arrival in 2015. She has served as treasurer of the Iranian Society at Virginia Tech and the Computer Science Graduate Council. She also assists in the planning of the Department’s Graduate Recruitment Weekend each year and edits “A Compact between Computer Science Graduate Students and their Advisors,” a document that helps students to understand their responsibilities and rights, as well as resources at the department and university levels to help students in distress.

The extraordinary extent of her leadership and service earned Forouzesh the Graduate Student Service Award in spring 2019 and the Computer Science Scholars and Pratt Fellowships in 2017 and 2019. 

Her excellence in student teaching also earned her the Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant Award in spring 2018, conferred by the Department of Computer Science.

“Overall, Negin is one of the best graduate teaching assistants that I have ever had,” said Cliff Shaffer, professor and associate department head for graduate studies. “She clearly cares about her teaching, and will become a great teacher on her own in her future career.” 

“I clearly remember my first day of my orientation at Virginia Tech,” Forouzesh said. “I saw Ut Prosim on the orange and maroon flags, wondering what that sentence meant. It was inspiring when I realized it translated to ‘That I May Serve.’”

She noted that the university’s firm commitment to serve the community was her biggest takeaway from her time at the school. “During the past five years at Virginia Tech, I found that my core beliefs strongly aligned with the Hokie spirit,” said Forouzesh.

- Written by Taylor Casarotti, a senior intern in the Department of Computer Science