Community rallies to continue the legacy of Reza Mirzaeifar
A year after the passing of a beloved friend and colleague, a group of Virginia Tech engineers carried on the critical research he started and helped his students complete their education.
October 19, 2023
Reza Mirzaeifar, associate professor and John R. Jones III Faculty Fellow of mechanical engineering, was a respected researcher and teacher when he succumbed to cancer in October 2022.
Shima Shahab, associate professor and Mary V. Jones Faculty Fellow of mechanical engineering, Mirzaeifar’s wife at the time of his death, remembers the resolve he showed after his diagnosis.
“Reza was never sad or furious about his condition; instead, he was inspired to keep working hard, get well, and be grateful for every day we had,” Shahab said. “Cancer was an inspiring transformation in our life that taught us the destination is important, but we can also make the journey beautiful. We never stopped being appreciative of the experience. It was our major accomplishment and resulted in a continuous growth of our inner strength.”
Shahab worked with her husband on projects that combined their expertise. After his diagnosis, the pair was inspired to join forces to create new approaches for drug delivery.
Combining focused ultrasound and polymer research, Mirzaeifar's team designed a pill-shaped polymer medicine container that held its shape and remained sealed as it passed through the body. Shahab's team engineered ultrasound waves that opened the container when it reached the region of the body that needs the medicine. Their combined project created drug delivery that could be more strategic for cancer therapy.
Finding new advisors
Mirzaeifar's team had a broad range of research in material behavior such as the ultrasound partnership. These also included incorporating new materials such as graphene, 3D printed alloys, and polymer fibers to improve material performance. His cutting-edge experiments combined with computational studies resulted in new blends with exceptional mechanical properties and attracted a number of students interested in tapping his expertise for their own scientific exploration.
Two of his students, Arpit Agrawal and Jonathan Charleston, graduated with PhD degrees in 2023. Both were pursuing their Doctor of Philosophy in Mechanical Engineering under Mirzaeifar. Their work involved metal graphene composites. After Mirzaeifar died, Agrawal and Charleston finished their degree and thesis with the assistance of Shahab and Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor, Michael Bartlett. Their work resulted in more than 10 papers in leading journals.
“It's still a challenge for me to accept that we've bid our farewells," Agrawal said. "I frequently recall Dr. Mirzaeifar, especially when thinking about scientific problems and yearning for the unique perspective he always had. Time keeps moving forward, but the absence left behind remains palpable. Grief, like particles in a quantum field, behaves in its own enigmatic way, oscillating between peace and sadness. I sincerely hope that I can do enough justice to his legacy through my work. His influence is a force that continues to guide my character and scientific endeavors.”
Another student, Michael Paul Hendrickson, was working with Mirzaeifar on a project that used lasers to melt stainess steel. Upon Mirzaeifar’s passing, Hendrickson completed his degree and thesis with the help of Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Robert West. A little less than a year after the loss of his mentor, Hendrickson's dissertation still carried Mirzaeifar’s name on the list of advisors as a lasting testament to his influence.
"I was drawn to Reza's lab and group above others largely because of the high quality of work coming from his lab and the well-rounded focus Reza placed on research," Hendrickson said. "I was excited that he emphasized both the theoretical modeling and estimation side of research projects as well as the experimental. I still find it very important to be able to find available tools and resources to make educated predictions for topics of interest as well as to compare the expected results with experimental results to then improve the prediction methods. One of the main ways that my experiences from my master's degree are still aiding me today is in how I view questions and go about solving problems. The strategies I learned to divide problems into manageable questions and to assess problems in a methodical way have made it easier to tackle challenging problems that are usually quite intimidating."
Ravi Kiran Bollineni and Jiaxin Xi, other Doctoral students of Mirzaeifar, are continuing their study with the assistance of Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Ling Li and Shahab.
"It was my great privilege to work with Dr. Reza [Mirzaeifar] during my graduate school years," Bollineni said. "He was one of the finest advisors I have ever had the opportunity to learn from. He showed us the path of chasing the excellence with hard work and compassion, qualities that I will carry with me throughout my life."
Continuing the research
As a prolific researcher, Mirzaeifar had been the recipient of several research grants through the years. One of those projects, an exploration of microstructures, was funded by the Office of Naval Research.
Mirzaefar’s expertise was highly specialized and finding a single person to continue the work proved nearly impossible. To solve this problem, several colleagues from the Virginia Tech community came together. These included colleagues Chris Williams and Pinar Acar from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Prahalada Rao from the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
"Reza's expertise spanned processing, metallurgy, mechanics, and materials design,” Williams said. “We recognized quickly that carrying on his research plan would require a team of faculty. We are fortunate to have worked with him, and proud to continue his vision for research and student mentoring."
With that team assembled, work continued on the project. Kaustubh Deshmukh had been part of Mirzaeifar’s team from the beginning, largely basing his decision to come to Virginia Tech on interactions he had with him.
“By the time I made my decision, I had already talked to all the graduate students working with Dr. Mirzaeifar,” Deshmukh said. “Everyone had good testimonials about the lab and Dr. Mirzaeifar. All these conversations showcased that he was driven and passionate about his research while being a humble and supportive advisor for all the graduate students.”
Now finishing his work in Williams’ lab, Deshmukh is focused on journal publication. He next plans to develop an exhaustive research plan to scope the initial proposal to operate at an increased capacity.
A long-term legacy
Mirzaeifar brought a unique approach to both life and research, leaving many former colleagues with pleasant memories. After Mirzaeifar’s PhD defense at Georgia Tech in 2013, current Rice University President Reginald DesRoches fondly remembered Mirzaeifar from co-chairing the committee with Ken Gall, now a professor at Duke University.
“I will forever remember Reza for his brilliance, strength, humility, and kindness,” DesRoches said. “He was a shining light in my research lab and beyond and the impact of his work will continue to live on.”
Mark Paul, a Virginia Tech colleague who worked in a next-door office, reflected on the daily interactions the two enjoyed.
“Reza was a very dear friend,” Paul said. “I am now very grateful for all of the spontaneous and unplanned time we had together over these years. We would talk about far ranging topics from out-of-the-blue research ideas, observations about recent travels, life in Blacksburg, to whatever happened to be on our minds at that moment. Reza was always incredibly open, generous, and inquisitive; his engaging curiosity about the world was passed along to everyone he interacted with. He is deeply missed and his thoughtful influence will always remain.”
"Reza was a good-hearted man who cared deeply about me, his family, friends and students," Shahab said. "He aided the development of everyone he met along the way, and he never stopped striving to be an inspiration to everyone. Reza has given me the gift of today, the knowledge of a true love and my life's meaning. He taught me, if you work this hard, this moment is preparing you for something incredible that hasn't happened yet, keep going!”