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NIH Awards Local Professor Research Grant

Negin Forouzesh, a Burbank resident and assistant professor of computer science at California State University, Los Angeles, recently helped secure a $730,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health for the university.
The four-year grant from the NIH Support for Research Excellence (SuRE) program will support research on computer-aided drug design and provide students with opportunities to participate in biomedical research, with Forouzesh being its principal investigator and five students working on the project each year.
“This award pays for the research salary of five student assistants per academic year,” Forouzesh said. “This is a great opportunity for them to get involved in research and also cover their living expenses. My SAs are responsible for the design, development and testing of novel computational methods on protein-ligand structures.”
Cal State L.A. is a designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). About 65% of the students in the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology are Hispanic, low-income and first-generation college students, Forouzesh noted.
“The project enables our students to do interdisciplinary research, foster collaboration between faculty from different research backgrounds, and improve the quality and extent of research at Cal State L.A. in the biomedical area,” she said.
Through the NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the SuRE program supports research capacity building at institutions that enroll significant numbers of students from backgrounds nationally underrepresented in biomedical research and award degrees in biomedical sciences.
“I believe diversity drives innovation,” Forouzesh said. “In the past three years at Cal State L.A., I have recruited students from different races, ethnicity, economics, genders and ages. The novel perspectives that students from various backgrounds bring to my research lab are invaluable and I am committed to maintaining this positive atmosphere in the future.
“Particularly, I advocate for women in STEM,” she added. “I have pledged myself to women’s empowerment throughout my career by recruiting female students, training and supporting them. Among eight former and current student assistants in my research lab, four are female students with majors in computer science, electrical engineering and chemistry.”
In her research, Forouzesh, who received her doctorate in computer science from Virginia Tech, applies mathematical and physics-based modeling, high-performance computing, and machine learning to simulate and understand biomolecular systems.
“The computational study of biomolecular systems is an interdisciplinary field of research that requires knowledge and skills in several domains, including high performance computing (HPC), data science, biochemistry and biophysics,” Forouzesh said. “The multidisciplinary nature of this research excites me the most since it challenges me to learn new topics and lets me collaborate with faculty from different majors.”
The NIH SuRE award will fund Forouzesh’s research project: “Improving the Accuracy of Implicit Solvents with a Physics-Guided Neural Network.”
Protein-ligand interaction is central to several biological processes, including DNA replication and cellular energy production. It also has vast applications in the early stages of drug discovery — one of the most challenging tasks in the biological sciences, which takes about 10 to 15 years and $1.5 to $2 billion on average to discover a new drug, according to Forouzesh.
“The overarching goal of this research is to facilitate the sophisticated procedure of drug discovery by integrating novel machine learning (ML) techniques into classical physics-based approaches,” she said.
Forouzesh said she received the NIH award when her baby twins, Shania and Sherwin, were just 6 months old, and attributes her ability to make her work aspirations attainable to the support of her husband, Arman Izadi.
“Working on this research project enables me to: enhance my knowledge about emerging algorithms and technologies and their applications in biology; expand my professional network through working with other faculty, including my mentor Professor Ray Luo at UC Irvine, and the project consultant, Professor Guowei Wei at Michigan State University; and prepare preliminary results for applying for other funding programs in the future.”

First published in the February 18 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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