First-Generation Iranian Graduate Combines Engineering and Policy

May 16, 2011 — "Never judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes." Most of us have heard the adage.

But for Borna Kazerooni of McLean, a fourth-year student in the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, the words have personal meaning. As the son of Iranian immigrants, he well understands the principle behind the saying.

Indeed, an appreciation for diversity of perspective and background was the driving force that propelled Kazerooni to U.Va., to a degree in engineering science with concentrations in materials science and environmental engineering, and to an eventual master's degree in policy from U.Va.'s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

Like most engineers, Kazerooni has always had a penchant for solving problems. But it's the human element of engineering that most interests him – using technical know-how to find solutions to human problems that will better people's lives. James Smith, professor of civil and environmental engineering, calls Kazerooni's "broad understanding of engineering and its relation to people" one of his greatest strengths.

Kazerooni worked with Smith on a summer research project to test a sustainable water treatment technology for household water purification in the developing world. Kazerooni also traveled with a student and faculty group to Panama to study the canal. His research there became the basis for his fourth-year thesis on the vulnerabilities of the canal to climate change. Both projects allowed Kazerooni to combine his interest in policy with his engineering skills to help solve water and health issues in developing countries.

Prior to those projects, he also had a positive experience working in professor Robert Kelly's materials science and engineering lab, where he had the chance to present a poster at two conferences.

Kazerooni's family background is at the root of his interest in policy. "Growing up in an immigrant family," he explained, "speaking two languages and attempting to assimilate into two cultures gave me an awareness of the way differences between people and cultures can impact society, and the problems it can create – social, economic, political and technical."

Kazerooni came to U.Va. – and the Engineering School – wanting to solve such problems. But he faced a conundrum: He still wanted to do policy. The Science and Technology Policy Internship Program at the Engineering School provided the answer.

As part of the program, Kazerooni worked in Paris at the French Ministry of National Education. It was exciting, but also humbling, he remembers. "I had to work in a culture and language that was not native to me, and I gained an appreciation for what immigrants encounter when they work in our country," he said.

This increased his understanding of the necessity to consider differing perspectives in policy formulation, a vital qualification for any future policymaker.

The opportunity Kazerooni had to work with Dana Elzey, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, furthered that understanding. Elzey mentored Kazerooni as his adviser in the Rodman Scholars Program and as director of international programs in the Engineering School.

"Professor Elzey helped me see myself as a citizen of the world and also helped me bring together disciplines that don't necessarily fit neatly together, like engineering and policy," Kazerooni said.

Elzey's influence was instrumental in the most important lesson Kazerooni learned at U.Va. "Professor Elzey helped me broaden my outlook to consider not only my career destination, but the quality of the journey to get there," he said. "I learned that choosing the scenic route to reach your goals can sometimes make all the difference."

— By Liz Jones


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Zak Richards

Senior Writer/SEAS