Twin journeys to a Ph.D. at UW

by Kaine Korzekwa

The likelihood of a mother giving birth to twins is low. Mention that they’ll both grow up to leave Iran to pursue doctoral degrees in the same department at the same university and graduate the same year — and the idea seems even more farfetched. Yet, Sheida and Shirzad Malekpour consider this statistically unlikely tale their Wisconsin Experience.

The brother-sister pair was born in Iran and received bachelor’s degrees from different universities there in 2007. They then moved to Madison, Wis., where they both earned master’s degrees in 2010. They both graduated, in May 2016, from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering with doctoral degrees.

“There are a lot of smart, wise, and caring people at this university at all levels, and not only professors and advisors but also at libraries and elsewhere,” Sheida says. “The university and its resources are like a sea of great waves and you have to be that surfer to go in and ride them and take advantage of it all.”

The twins’ experience was shaped by very different lines of research accented with comical stories about being twins in the same department.

It’s important to stay open-minded. When I started I thought I would go into academia but I changed my mind and was able to get advice about many different fields. We both felt really supported here.

—Shirzad Malekpour

In the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, some researchers like Sheida study signal processing. Sheida’s research began with a project that mapped how signals travel in the brain — how different brain regions “talk” to each other.

She says an interesting finding from her early research is that when comparing the connections in normal brains and brains with an impairment, those thought to be impaired or less connected actually had some stronger connectivity than normal subjects, showing they may be compensating in some way.

Her knowledge of signaling and connectivity has landed her a job with the Ford Motor Company as a connectivity analyst. While she isn’t sure exactly what projects she’ll be working on, she says a good example would be autonomous vehicles and the signals and information they send to each other on the road.

While Sheida’s brother Shirzad is in the same department, his work is very different from his twin sister’s. He added some business professors to his Ph.D. committee and studied control methods in finance and stock trading.

“For my research, control theory is about bringing tools to different systems when there is uncertainty and no model to use,” Shirzad explains. “It allows for what we call robust performance when there is no model.”

An example Shirzad likes to use to explain control theory is the task of filling up a bathtub with 100-degree water. One way is to use complex models to write equations and solve them to know at what rate cold and hot water need to be added to reach the full tub of 100-degree water. With what is called the Basic Model-Free control theory, a model isn’t used. One would just turn on the water and measure the temperature frequently. If it’s too hot, add cold water, and if it’s too cold, add hot water, until the tub is full. Both approaches meet the same conclusion.

“Motivated by the financial crisis of 2008-2009, I use simple ideas from control theory to decide how to react to stock performance and decide how much to invest,” says Shirzad, who will be taking his skills to Wells Fargo, where he was recently hired. “I am very proud of this project and how I was able to pull from different areas.”

While the two have rigorous research interests, it’s actually all play and almost no work in the office when they are together. Sheida describes how it’s a big department and they had different advisors and offices but that the two had a couple classes together with Shirzad’s advisor.

“His advisor was assigning partners randomly and took the first name, which was Shirzad,” says Sheida, recalling a funny story. “He then took the second name and it was actually my name and we had to work together.”

Shirzad Malekpour speaks with his sister via Skype.

Shirzad Malekpour speaks with his sister via Skype.

The pair always laughs about how they were expected to know what the other was studying or researching at any moment in time. “I never knew what she was working on,” adds Shirzad. “We just talked about life. When I was stressed out finishing my thesis she would always stop by to ask for snacks and want to talk to me.”

The snacks are an inside joke from their childhood in Iran. The pair’s school in Iran separated boys from girls. One day, when an uncle gave them candies to eat in school, Shirzad ate his and then knocked on his sister’s classroom door asking for her to share hers so he could have more.

“Grad school was the time to return the favor,” Sheida laughs.

To which Shirzad replies, “I ended up just leaving her a snack outside my door so she wouldn’t bother me and I could hear her laugh.”

The two agree that being twins made their time at UW unique, but also say the university has helped guide them on their path. As twins, they’ve had double the experiences and have double the advice to offer to other students. Sheida was a teaching assistant and said it helped her communication and teaching skills, while Shirzad is grateful for the fellowship the Graduate School awarded him.

“It’s important to stay open-minded,” Shirzad says. “When I started I thought I would go into academia but I changed my mind and was able to get advice about many different fields. We both felt really supported here.”

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