Gertrude Gutierrez, center in Ph.D. hood, was one of two USC Viterbi students to receive the prestigious USC Ph.D. Achievement Award. (PHOTO: Yimin Zhang)
She’d been offered a position at Pearl Therapeutics, after several years in upper management in the biotech industry.
Meanwhile, Noah Malmstadt, associate professor of chemical engineering, was e-mailing her almost daily. It was August 2013, and the Ph.D. decision deadline was looming.
Hmm . . . having lots of disposable income versus living on a graduate school stipend.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” Gutierrez said.
As author Anais Nin says, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.” Today, three years later, standing alongside 133 newly minted Ph.Ds. at Bovard Auditorium and recently named among six Trojans to receive the USC Ph.D. Achievement Award, Gutierrez’s life is in full expansion mode.
“I’ve really grown in thinking outside the box, feeling confident as a researcher,” Gutierrez said, crediting Malmstadt as an “incredible mentor.” “I did my Ph.D. in three years, and I feel like I learned more than if I’d spent 10 years in private industry.”
At the 2016 USC Viterbi Ph.D. Hooding and Awards Ceremony, Dean Yannis C. Yortsos exhorted the new engineering Ph.Ds. to “solve the big challenges of our time, whether making solar energy competitive, securing cyberspace, engineering better medicines, providing access to clean water, eliminating poverty or enriching life.”
Arian Saffari, who also received the prestigious USC Ph.D. Achievement Award, was inspired by the massive sandstorms that plague his hometown of Ahvaz, Iran.
“I grew up in one of the most polluted places in the world,” reflected Saffari. “In a 2011 survey, it was named by the World Health Organization (WHO) as having the world’s worst air pollution problem. I saw people with respiratory problems who had no background in these things. And it was only later during my Ph.D. research when I realized the adverse health effects of air pollution can even go beyond respiratory issues and impact cardiovascular and neuro-developmental health as well.”
Under the direction of Professor Costas Sioutas, Saffari’s work focuses on the toxicity of particulate matter – a mixture of solid particles like dust and liquid droplets found in the air. Of the six major pollutants classified by the EPA, including lead, carbon monoxide and ozone, particulate matter is the only one that consists of different materials.
Said Saffari, “Forty years ago in California, the air pollution was a lot worse than today. I had a professor in this field who said, ‘I had no idea there was a San Gabriel Mountains until it rained!’ Now, after the regulations of the 1970s and afterwards, air pollution is better, but these are still just preliminary steps.”
His research in the USC Aerosol Lab may provide key insights for EPA branches like the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which manages air pollution in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Gutierrez, who, in collaboration with her three sisters, founded the In Good Hands Home health care facility in Northern California, has witnessed firsthand the ravages of mental illness. “I’ve seen patients dealing with schizophrenia,” she said, “and it comes in waves. There are days when things are fine. And there are days and weeks when the chemical imbalance worsens, and they’re angry and crying all the time.”
Motivated in part by these stories, Gutierrez’s Ph.D. thesis focuses on using engineered, artificial cells to study the effects of cholesterol on vital proteins like the serotonin receptor, which plays a key role in the body’s moods, anxieties and may be a key influencer of diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar.
“What’s really novel here is that we can look at this receptor in a really isolated way,” Gutierrez said. “This has big implications for discovering new drugs.”
THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE: Dean Yannis C. Yortsos (far left) and William F. Ballhaus, Jr. (far right) stand alongside the three nominees for the best doctoral dissertation — the William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize for Excellence in Graduate Engineering Research. The top nominees from all eight departments were (from left to right) Matthew Gilpin, Krisna Bhargava and Ningfeng Huang, Gilpin took home this year's prize.
(PHOTO: Yimin Zhang)
Ballhaus, a member of USC Viterbi’s Board of Councilors and former CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, joined Yortsos on stage to honor the prize’s recipient, Matthew Gilpin.
Gilpin, who received his Ph.D. in 2015 and is now serving as full-time lecturer in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, focused his thesis on solar-thermal propulsion, a novel of way of powering small spacecraft, like the 200-pound micro-satellites that proliferate in Earth’s low orbit.
Reflecting on his 174-page thesis, entitled, “High Temperature Latent Heat Thermal Energy Storage to Augment Solar Thermal Propulsion for Microsatellites,” Gilpin said, “The biggest thing about getting your Ph.D. is the process. I’ve spoken to so many first year Ph.D. candidates who say, ‘I’ve spent the entire year and gotten nowhere. I feel like I just wasted a year.’ And I say, no, you haven’t. You’re figuring out how to approach these problems as an independent researcher and scientist. Having gone through this, similar big problems won’t take me five years – maybe they’ll take me two. And it’s because I know how to navigate the process.”
Here are the 2016 winners of important Ph.D. awards:
|Matthew Gilpin**||Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering||High Temperature Latent Heat Thermal Energy Storage to Augment Solar Thermal Propulsion for Microsatellites|
|Anthony Shao||Department of Astronautical Engineering||Quantifying the Effect of Orbit Altitude on Mission Cost for Earth Observation Satellites|
|Emily Lawrence||Department of Biomedical Engineering
||Demographic and Clinical Covariates of Sensorimotor Processing
|Farzad Jalali-Yazdi||Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science||Generation and Characterization of Peptide Theranostics by mRNA Display
|Krisna Bhargava*||Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science||A Modular Microscale Laboratory|
|Charanraj Thimmisetty||Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering||Risk Assessment, Intrinsic Interpolation and Computationally Efficient Models for Systems Under Uncertainty|
|Leandro Soriano Marcolino||Department of Computer Science||Three Fundamental Pillar of Decision-centered Teamwork|
|Brandon Franzke||Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering-Systems||Noise Benefits in Markov Chain Monte Carlo Computation|
|Ningfeng Huang*||Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering-Electrophysics||Light Management in Nanostructures: Nanowire Solar Cells and Optical Epitaxial Growth|
|Lunce Fu||Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering||Train Scheduling and Routing Under Dynamic Headway Control|
*finalist for the William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize for Excellence in Graduate Engineering Research
**winner, William F. Ballhaus Jr. Prize for Excellence in Graduate Engineering Research
Best Research Assistants:
|Orlando Delpino Gonzales||Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering|
|Roya Sheybani||Department of Biomedical Engineering|
|Arian Saffari||Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering|
|Fei Fang||Department of Computer Science|
|Haonan Lu||Department of Computer Science|
|Elaine Short||Department of Computer Science|
|Hongyi Xu||Department of Computer Science|
Best Teaching Assistants:
|Robert Roe Burrell||Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering|
|Yu-Hao Peng||Department of Biomedical Engineering|
|Trevor Krasowsky||Sonny Astani Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering|
|Pedram Oskouie||Sonny Astani Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering|
|Linron Cohen||Department of Computer Science|
|Ali Jala-Kamali||Department of Computer Science|
|Tansel Uras||Department of Computer Science|
|Roberto Martin Del Campo Vera||Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering|
|Sanaz Massoumi||Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering|
Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering - Ming Hsieh Institute Scholars
Viterbi Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award
|Orlando Delpino Gonzales||Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering|
|Mary Gertrude Gutierrez||Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science||USC Ph.D. Achievement Award|
|Arian Saffari||Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering||USC Ph.D. Achievement Award|