An assistant professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences has won a prestigious McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience award to advance her two-photon microscopy research on neural activity in the brains of fruit fly larvae. Mirna Mihovilovic…
On the Road to Ph.D.: A Family Journey
Nafiseh Shahbazi Majd G’21 and Javad Shafiei Shiva G’21 knew they were making a decision that would change both of their lives, but did not initially realize how special their eventual accomplishments would be. The married couple had been successfully working at highly regarded companies for six years after completing their master’s degrees at the University of Tehran and Sharif University of Technology, but both had the desire to earn Ph.D. degrees.
“We were eager to follow up on our studies and we thought we could create this opportunity for ourselves,” says Majd.
“An important point for us was if one of us will attend the Ph.D. program in a university, there should be a program for the other person in that university” said Shafiei Shiva. “If we are going to a university with environmental engineering for me, there should be a program with structural engineering which is her field.”
While exploring research universities, Shafiei Shiva had spoken to civil and environmental engineering Professor David Chandler and the well-known hydrologist made an impression on him.
“I really liked Professor Chandler even before meeting him in person. The way he encouraged me and his focus on my strengths made me realize I am a good fit for his research group and can help with achieving the team’s research goals,” says Shafiei Shiva.
Chandler was interested in his research ideas and Central New York was already looking attractive to Shafiei Shiva and Majd.
“We love the snow and cold weather,” says Shafiei Shiva.
Syracuse University was also a draw for Majd. During her coursework for her master’s degree, she became very familiar with civil and environmental engineering Professor Eric Lui.
“In our structural stability course at University of Tehran, Professor Lui’s book was our textbook,” says Majd. “When I saw Javad’s admission letter from SU, I got so excited and I knew right then I will be contacting him.”
The couple relocated to Syracuse and Shafiei Shiva started as a Ph.D. student with Chandler in the civil and environmental engineering department in 2014. As Majd explored her options for a Ph.D. program, Professor Lui, Emeritus Professor James Mandel, and Professor Dawit Negussey all offered their assistance. Majd started her Ph.D. the next year.
“Having all the support from the department and knowing what to expect from this program, I enrolled in the civil engineering Ph.D. program,” says Majd. “I was so thrilled when I learned I will be working with Dr. Lui who is a subject matter expert in his field. He had open-door policy and was approachable for help and advice. This was exactly the opportunity I was hoping for, a professional and intelligent advisor who is considerate and inspiring, while cultivating my potentials and putting his trust in my abilities. Both advisors were tremendously supportive and there was a trust component that was truly valuable to us.”
“Dr Shafiei Shiva is truly both a gentleman and a scholar,” says Chandler. “His comportment and generosity to students across the CEE Department was often understated, but always available. As scholar, he chose the course of his dissertation carefully and once set, worked methodically to develop a set of insightful metrics in an exceptionally thorny and topical field. I am proud of his work and hope that he can find a path home to academia here at Syracuse University.”
“It has been a pleasure to serve as Dr. Majd’s academic and dissertation advisor,” says Lui. “She not only possesses the intelligence and determination needed for Ph.D. study, her diligence, enthusiasm and passion have made this arduous journey very gratifying and rewarding. As a teaching assistant, she is passionate, meticulous, and is much beloved by her students. As a research assistant, she is astute, perspicacious, and keen on solving complex problems. She and Dr. Shiva were wonderful students who have enriched our undergraduate and graduate programs. They are now wonderful alumni who will make important and lasting contributions to the profession.”
While it is unusual to find a married couple both pursuing doctoral degrees in the same department at a prominent research university, they also appreciated having a partner who understood what it took.
“It helped that both of us were doing this together,” says Majd.
“We could completely understand each other. Getting a Ph.D. is hard so in our case we both understood why we had to stay late and work during weekends,” says Shafiei Shiva. “We would usually start our days at the same time walking to school and then some days we would have to stay until midnight. We would still have breakfast, lunch and dinner together and walk back home together.”
Majd and Shafiei Shiva found the close-knit civil and environmental department to be welcoming.
“Professor Chandler was a great advisor, friend and mentor for me. He was and still is a role model for me” says Shafiei Shiva. “We never felt like we were alone. One of the reasons that we love Syracuse University is that it was like a big family for us. On holidays like Thanksgiving we never felt we were alone.”
“You would feel supported. When we had an issue, everyone was approachable and wanted to know how they could help,” said Majd.
Being a couple also helped them connect to more people across the department and the College of Engineering and Computer Science.
“She was the TA for a course that my advisor was teaching and sometimes he would joke that we were having a family meeting,” says Shafiei Shiva.
When they learned their family would be growing, friends from the civil and environmental engineering department hosted two baby showers.
“Carolyn Mandel and Dr. Mandel offered to hold a baby shower for me, while another group of friends from the environmental group had asked Javad to surprise me with a baby shower! It was such an incredible and memorable moment in my life to see all my friends from Syracuse celebrating this new chapter of our life with us,” says Majd. “Also, Professor Chandler offered me another Fellowship through his NSF research grants to support me financially and he made sure I will be spending enough time with my newborn,” says Shafiei Shiva.
In 2020, Majd and Shafiei Shiva completed their Ph.D. degrees and are now working in California. Their life-changing decision had worked out even better than they anticipated.
“Nafis and I are still working with our Ph.D. advisors on a few research works and we appreciate the continued collaboration,” says Shafiei Shiva. “A Ph.D. program is not just about the academics and degrees. It’s also about learning communication skills and relationships, and taking care of others. There are some concepts that are hard to find in textbooks.”
They talk to their daughter about how much Syracuse University means to them and hope they can return.
“In my opinion it is the best place in the United States to live,” says Shafiei Shiva. “The lakes and the natural scenery, warm and welcoming people, and a community that look after one another – it’s hard to find anything like it in the United States.”