By Katie E. Ismael
A UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering undergrad turned Ph.D. student then professor is now the Computer Science and Engineering Department’s (CSE) Teacher of the Year for 2019-2020.
In only his second year as a CSE assistant teaching professor, Niema Moshiri has been selected by students as the department’s top teacher. He succeeds Sorin Lerner, the CSE department chair who was Teacher of the Year for 2018-2019.
Moshiri, who conducts research on computational biology with a focus on HIV phylogenetics and epidemiology, talks about his path from Jacobs School student to professor and what stands out about CSE and his students.
You’re a Jacobs School alumnus with your B.S. and Ph.D. in Bioinformatics and Systems Biology. Why did you choose to remain a part of the school and join CSE?
I actually grew up in San Diego as well! My family and best friends are still here, which played a big role in me wanting to stay in San Diego. In addition to staying close to my family and friends, having grown up in Chula Vista, I really wanted to stay in San Diego to be able to give back to my community as a professor.
You were selected for this award as a first-year teacher. What does this mean to you?
Having done both my B.S. and Ph.D. here (and thus being quite familiar with the courses in the CSE department from the perspective of a TA as well as a student), I tried to restructure the courses I taught during my first year to better align the amount of time students spend with the learning objectives of the course. When the pandemic started, I put in a ton of time and effort to rebuild the Advanced Data Structures course (CSE 100) essentially from scratch to better fit a fully online learning environment across different time zones.
To me, this award represents positive feedback from the students that all of the effort made an impact, something that really means a lot to me.
What do you find the most fulfilling about teaching? Are there standout moments in your teaching career?
When I am having a discussion with a student who may not be understanding a concept, there is a specific "A-ha!" moment, during which I can concretely see that things now click for the student. The joy I feel when I'm able to help a student have such a moment is by far the most fulfilling part of teaching for me.
Regarding standout moments. During Spring 2020, with the sudden shift to fully online instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I co-taught CSE 100 with Assistant Teaching Professor Joe Politz and Ph.D. student Sander Valstar. Around the middle of the quarter, the TAs suggested that we (the TAs and instructors) create a music video for the students as an incentive/reward for studying (and to generally lighten the mood given the difficult situation everyone was in).
See the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xWRKRthWqE
This music video was by far the most standout moment in my teaching career. It was a lot of fun!
Why would a student be interested in attending CSE?
The CSE department at UC San Diego is unique in that we have a somewhat large department, yet every single faculty member is well-recognized in their field. In most programs, which are generally considerably smaller than ours, any given area of computer science has maybe one or two faculty members. But in our department, pretty much every area of computer science (and even sub-fields) has representation in the faculty. As a result, students have a unique opportunity to interact with world leaders in any area of computer science they may find interesting.
Further, the department— and the Jacobs School as a whole— has many connections with industry, meaning top companies recruit fairly heavily from us.
*Moshiri places a large emphasis on teaching, specifically on the development of online educational content and Massive Adaptive Interactive Texts (MAITs). He recently gave a TEDx talk on the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JKgUoY9pTg