Payam Yousefi: Huffman Prize Winner - Bioengineering with Artist's Eye

June 06, 2014

Payam Yousefi (Photo by C. Lagattuta)

The web site of Payam Yousefi, this year's winner of the Baskin School of Engineering's Huffman Prize, has links to two different resumés, one technical and the other design-oriented. A closer look reveals a technical resumé that is unusually eye-catching and well designed, while the design one is unusually detailed technically. This dual resumé shows Yousefi's extraordinary talents in multiple fields: science, technology, and art.

"I do both technical and creative work together—I consider them both the same thing," Yousefi said. "An engineer also has to be a designer because engineering requires creativity. Whether you're designing something or engineering something, you're coming up with something new."

The Huffman Prize is awarded annually to a Baskin School of Engineering graduating senior whose academic career at UCSC exhibits extraordinary creativity, depth of inquiry, and overall excellence. The prize honors the memory and the legacy of its namesake, David A. Huffman, professor emeritus of computer science.

In addition to winning the Huffman Prize, Yousefi, who graduates in June with a B.S. in bioengineering and a minor in bioinformatics, will also receive the Baskin School of Engineering Dean's Award, and he was one of 15 students chosen to receive a Chancellor's Award.

Laboratory research

Yousefi was recommended for the Huffman Prize by assistant professor of biomolecular engineering Rebecca DuBois, in whose lab Yousefi has been working for the past year. DuBois is a structural biologist studying viral proteins. Her work is used to design novel vaccines and to develop nanoscale drug delivery vehicles and antiviral therapeutics.

"Payam impressed me from the moment he first contacted me," said DuBois. When she gave a lecture as part of the hiring process for her faculty position, Yousefi was there, showing an interest and asking intelligent questions. Later, when DuBois was hired, Yousefi sent her an e-mail praising her research and asking if she might have space for him in her lab.

"I think that taking that initiative is an important part of being a leader—I was happy to see that Payam would show that initiative as an undergraduate," said DuBois. "Payam is also an excellent critical thinker who understands the big picture and also understands the small steps that it takes to get there. He has had a challenging project, and he's been persistent and has used his own ideas to push it forward. He is a very independent worker."

DuBois said that from what she has read, David Huffman, the professor whom the award is named after, was a creative researcher, and that Yousefi displays a similarly creative approach. "For example, when we hit a major roadblock in our research, Yousefi went home and researched the problem online, did some bioinformatics analyses, and came up with a solution that I wouldn't have thought of myself," said DuBois.

In DuBois' lab, Yousefi researches the human astrovirus, a small virus that causes gastroenteritis. While it generally does not affect healthy adults, it can sometimes have a devastating effect on young children, the elderly, and immunocompromised people.

"My project is to understand the virus better on a molecular level," said Yousefi. Specifically, Yousefi has been studying the outer coat of the virus called the capsid protein, which has two major parts: the core that surrounds the viral genome and the star-shaped spikes that give the astrovirus its name. The ultimate goal is to understand the molecular process of how 180 capsid proteins assemble to form one virus particle. Yousefi uses x-ray crystallography, in which an x-ray beam is focused on the protein's crystals and the resulting diffraction data allow scientists to create a three-dimensional map of the protein's molecular structure.

Ironically, although the virus is potentially destructive, DuBois' lab is studying it for its therapeutic potential. Astrovirus has the unusual ability to survive the entire intestinal tract, and DuBois wants to understand how it does that.

"The protein I'm studying could have new properties that we don't know about. It could also be a nanoparticle that we can use for targeted therapy," said Yousefi.

Working independently

As the year progressed, Yousefi began to work in the lab more independently, relying on his experience and the notes he made in his lab books. His lab work will form the basis for his senior thesis, "Crystal Structure of the Human Astrovirus Capsid Core," which he is finishing up now.

"I couldn't have asked for a better lab experience," Yousefi said, adding that he often spends about 20 hours a week in DuBois' lab, which has become a second home to him on campus and where he goes between classes. "I wanted to do hands-on research and participate in making discoveries, and Dr. DuBois allowed me to do that. It's been incredible."

He particularly appreciates his lab co-workers, whom he describes as being very helpful, positive, and fun to work with.

In addition to his coursework, his work in DuBois' lab, and his senior thesis, Yousefi worked two on-campus jobs, doing web work and design for Undergraduate Admissions and for the Dean of Students, and he spent a quarter in Japan on the UC Education Abroad Program, studying Japanese language and culture at International Christian University.

Yousefi's design work can be seen in a series of full-page advertisements that the Dean of Students placed in City on a Hill Press, and in Admissions' eSlug electronic newsletter for guidance counselors. He has also been generous with his time in communicating with prospective UCSC students through Admissions social media and through the Admissions Student Profile web page.

"I like looking back and knowing that I've contributed something, whether it is designing an advertisement or conducting lab research," said Yousefi of his busy schedule. "I like the feeling of giving back, creating something. I have all these responsibilities, but I'm happy to have them."

"Payam just seems to be one of those people who are good at everything," said DuBois. "He's savvy with computer software, programming, and design, he's an excellent communicator, and he also has what we call 'good lab hands' and excels at lab research."

After graduation, Yousefi plans to work in a biotechnology company. Eventually, he would like to apply to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D., continuing similar research to what he has done at UCSC, in addition to researching other topics. Yousefi said he is grateful for the education he has received at UC Santa Cruz and the people he has met here, including fellow students in Porter College.

"UCSC has allowed me to not be afraid to express the different sides of myself, and a lot of that has to do with my choice of college," Yousefi said. "Being in Porter was exciting because I met so many different people. Psychology, art, history of art and visual culture—I've learned so much from my friends. I never go around saying I'm just a bioengineer. I want to be more than that."