Class of 2019: Doctoral student credits ‘lab family’ with accomplishments
Farzad Ahmadi wasn’t always sure he wanted to be an engineer.
For those who know the 2019 Ph.D. graduate in engineering mechanics well, that news may come as a bit of a surprise. During his time in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, Ahmadi has authored seven academic journal publications. He’s listed as the first author on three of those, and he has one more first-author publication pending.
Ahmadi has also formally mentored a total of nine undergraduate students – five of whom have already published, with the other four well on their way to publication, too.
This degree of productivity would be an impressive feat for many professors, much less a graduate student.
Additionally, Ahmadi helped solve a notoriously difficult problem in fluid dynamics, one that many senior engineers had already given up on: How to create a cheap, durable, and passive anti-frosting surface, one that could keep a surface 90% dry without any heat or chemicals.
“Many people in the engineering community were frustrated by the frosting problem, and they found it difficult to solve,” said Ahmadi, whose dissertation focused on this topic as well as other phase change phenomena. “They thought we should stop doing research on it. But here at Virginia Tech, we thought to ourselves, if we can solve this problem, we can help a lot of people. So we kept going.”
That level of dedication and perseverance has become a trademark of Ahmadi’s presence in the Nature-inspired Fluids and Interfaces Lab and is one of the many reasons he was chosen as the College of Engineering’s 2019 Outstanding Doctoral Student. Jonathan Boreyko, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Ahmadi’s faculty advisor, describes him as a triple threat – an engineer who can create experiments, theoretical models, and numerical simulations.
“I’ve never had a student who can do all three,” Boreyko said. “I’ve just been so impressed by his willingness to push himself and learn new skills, then take that skill set and apply it in a much broader way than any typical engineer could.”
For Ahmadi, the path to these accomplishments and a career in engineering started back in his home country of Iran at Azad University, where he said he began his undergraduate education without a clear sense of direction or long-term goals.
Eventually, Ahmadi landed in an engineering class with a professor who was passionate about research and his students.
“This class was really great,” Ahmadi said. “We met early in the morning, but because there were no teaching assistants, our professor would stay after to answer students’ questions. Sometimes he would stay until 9 p.m. to answer these questions.”
Ahmadi was inspired by his professor’s dedication, and for the first time, he saw a future for himself in engineering – and academia. “It was a moment that changed my life,” he said.
That seed of inspiration grew into an undergraduate degree in civil engineering, then a master’s in the same field from Sharif University of Technology. When Ahmadi started to consider a doctoral degree, a friend told him about Virginia Tech in the United States and encouraged him to apply.
As a new graduate student in Boreyko’s lab, Ahmadi said he found more than just a mentor and a few labmates. He found a family.
“To me, NIFI [Nature-inspired Fluids and Interfaces] is not just a lab,” he said. “It’s a home. My labmates have become like brothers and sisters, and there’s no competition in our lab. We’re trying to help each other and solve problems together. Of course, Jonathan is a big part of that. Yes, he’s my advisor, but we’re also close friends.”
The lab’s respective members represent five different nationalities: Iranian, Korean, Chinese, Indian, and American. That diversity and Boreyko’s mentorship have not only created a support network for students with different backgrounds, but they have also encouraged a collaborative environment for challenging research problems.
“Most of my research ideas have come from the group as a whole,” said Ahmadi, who is proud of the fact that he hasn’t published a single-author paper. “It wasn’t just me. It was the team.”
For Boreyko, that collaborative approach and Ahmadi’s leadership have been a prominent influence on his lab’s success.
“Farzad has kind of set the bar for the whole laboratory,” Boreyko said. “We’ve now established a culture where everyone is committed to excellence, and he’s the leader of that culture. But just as importantly, we’re committed to the joy of intellectual discovery.”
Ahmadi, who hopes to continue his career in academia as a postdoctoral researcher, has had to learn that the process of intellectual discovery isn’t always easy. He finds his research pursuits difficult but rewarding and said he had to learn from his failures along the way.
“Failure is the path to success,” he said. “You’ll have a lot of failures when you’re doing research. Just don’t give up along the way.”