Mourning the loss of four members of our Faculty of Science community

Remembering Pouneh Gorji, Arash Pourzarabi, Saba Saadat, and Sara Saadat

News Staff - 11 January 2020

We mourn the loss of four cherished Faculty of Science members in Flight PS752:
Pouneh Gorji, graduate student, Master of Science in the Department of Computing Science;
Arash Pourzarabi, graduate student, Master of Science in the Department of Computing Science;
Saba Saadat, undergraduate student, Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences;
Sara Saadat, alumna, 2019, Bachelor of Science in Psychology.

Big hearts, bright minds: computing science graduate students and newlyweds remembered for their kindness and scientific promise

By Jennifer Pascoe

On a cold, dark January night, warmth and light surrounded hundreds of graduate students and professors overflowing Athabasca Hall's Heritage Lounge. The group had gathered to honour the memory of their students, friends, colleagues, classmates, and community members, Pouneh Gorji and Arash Pourzarabi.

Gorji and Pourzarabi had recently travelled home to Iran to get married. It was a big wedding attended by friends and family. A week later they boarded a plane to return to Edmonton.

Pouneh Gorji, graduate student, Master of Science in the Department of Computing Science.

They were among the 176 people killed when a Ukraine International Airlines flight crashed Jan. 8 a few minutes after takeoff from Tehran International Airport. Ten people from the U of A - students, professors and alumni - were among the victims of the crash.

In the days since their deaths, Gorji and Pourzarabi are being remembered by their fellow students and mentors as optimists, always with smiles on their faces.

The couple came to the U of A together in the fall of 2017, following the completion of their bachelor's degrees from Sharif University of Technology in Iran. They were pursuing master's degrees in artificial intelligence at the U of A.

Sina Ghiassian remembers meeting Gorji and Pourzarabi for the first time when he picked them up from the airport upon their arrival in Edmonton in 2017 to begin their graduate studies. Ghiassian, a friend and fellow graduate student working on his PhD in computing science, was immediately struck by their positive personalities.

"Pouneh was always cheerful, full of joy, and easy to talk to," he recalled. "So was Arash. I often met Arash during lunch time in the student lounge. He was always happy. Had a smile on his face at all times. No exceptions," said Ghiassian.

Both Gorji and Pourzarabi had completed all of their coursework and were working on research for their theses. Gorji focused on disease prediction from ultrasound images of the liver, co-supervised by computing science professors Pierre Boulanger and Russ Greiner. Pourzarabi focused on furthering advancements in reinforcement learning, supervised by computing science professor Michael Bowling along with U of A alumnus and DeepMind research scientist Michael Johanson.

Along with Gorji's important research pursuits, she also held another role in the computing science lab, say her supervisors: the "Vice-President of Fun."

"She was always positive, upbeat, and fun to be with, always with ideas to discuss in our weekly meetings, organizing various events including movie nights and a team trip to Elk Island," reflected Greiner, fellow with the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (amii).

"A big heart. That's Pouneh," echoed Boulanger, Cisco Research Chair in Healthcare Systems. "Pouneh was one of my best master's students. Outside of being a truly kind and thoughtful person, on the professional side, she was working on the applications of advanced neural networks for the automatic detection of fatty livers from ultrasound images." She was a truly interdisciplinary student working closely with radiologists in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, he noted.

"Before she left for her wedding in Iran, she made great progress and was ready to publish her work in top academic journals. It was always a pleasure to collaborate with her, as she was truly knowledgeable and smart about her work. This airplane crash is truly a tragedy, as she had a promising career in science ahead of her."

Boulanger now has plans to posthumously publish Gorji's work in her name so that her research can live on and inspire further work in the field. Her work tackling medical challenges might also improve lives in the future, said Greiner.

"Pouneh wanted to work on medical imaging tasks, as imaging was in her skill set, and the medical applications meant that it could be used to help people," he said.

Arash Pourzarabi, graduate student, Master of Science in the Department of Computing Science

Beyond Gorji's work with fatty livers, she was also focused on using machine learning techniques to produce a computer system that could use ultrasound scans to predict babies who are at risk of developing hip dysplasia. She was an integral part of a collaborative team at who made this work a reality, making solid progress prior to leaving for her wedding.

Pourzarabi also worked with, though he was committed to improving the world in his own way. He dedicated himself to advancing the scientific community through research in reinforcement learning, a subset of artificial intelligence that focuses on computer systems learning to accomplish tasks entirely on their own. It was Pourzarabi's passion that his supervisor, Michael Bowling, remembers.

"I try to give my students a buffet of different paths we can follow for their work and see what captures the student's imagination. Arash was excited about all of them. I can still picture his huge smile," reflected Bowling, amii fellow and DeepMind research scientist. "Arash's work would have been part of the communal scientific advance. We were beginning to discuss writing up his very interesting, and in some places unexpected, results. I am hoping we can still do that: that Arash's preliminary work could be made available to inspire other researchers; that his insight, discoveries, and hard work will still be part of the slow buildup of scientific understanding."

Beyond recognition of Pourzarabi's scientific mind, Bowling remains humbled by his student's heart. "Arash was a real joy to supervise. He had a big, bright smile that couldn't be hidden behind his beard. He was so excited about contributing to the scientific field."

If there is any light in the darkness following this tragedy, it is that the warm hearts and bright minds of Gorji and Pourzarabi live on not only in the memories of their mentors, labmates, and friends but also in the broader scientific community, with the promise of future impact on the health and lives of innumerable people on this planet.

"She was like a little light"

By Ross Neitz

Saba Saadat, undergraduate student, Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences

To everyone who knew her, it was clear Saba Saadat was destined for great things. An immigrant twice over, the 21-year-old Iranian-Canadian was on track to graduate from the University of Alberta this spring with a bachelor of science in biological sciences, and a larger goal of following in her mother's footsteps to one day become a doctor.

A brilliant student, selfless volunteer and compassionate friend, Saba left her mark on all she touched.

"She was like a little light," remembers Meghan Riddell, a research supervisor at the U of A and friend to Saba who saw a spark of brilliance in the young woman. "I would be incredibly lucky to ever encounter a student like her again."

Saba's journey to Canada and the U of A was not a direct one. When she was a young child, Saba, her sister Sara and her mother immigrated from Iran to Qatar only to eventually move back to the country of her birth. In 2011, the family would soon relocate countries yet again, this time to Canada, where Saba's mother would work as an obstetrician and gynecologist in Halifax for three years before eventually settling down in Edmonton.

Saba enrolled at the U of A as an undergraduate student in the fall of 2016. An excellent student, she devoted herself to her studies and exhibited a strong aptitude for research that led her to a placement in a summer studentship program with the U of A's Women and Children's Health Research Institute.

"She was a PhD disguised as an undergraduate," says Riddell, an assistant professor in the departments of obstetrics and gynecology and physiology. Saba was the first student Riddell took into her lab. "She was completely exceptional. I remember as part of an oral exam where she had to defend her research project-kind of like a mini-PhD defence-we were unable to find questions that she wasn't prepared for. It became almost comedic because she had predicted everything the three different PhDs in the room would ask."

But aside from her intellectual brilliance, Riddell says it was Saba's capacity for empathy and kindness that will stick with her. The young woman had a way of bringing others together and lifting them up.

It was a talent she shared freely, both at the university and outside of it. Saba was an active volunteer who devoted her free time to causes close to her heart. She tutored, volunteered with the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton, taught piano to underprivileged youth on a volunteer basis, and worked as a project manager with the Social Engagement, Empowerment and Development Society (SEEDS) on its Helping Hampers campaign. At the university, Saba served as vice-president of the U of A Heart & Stroke Foundation Students' Association and acted as a mentor to first-year science students.

"I believe her innate disposition for helping people is what drew her to the mentorship program," says Nadine Buchanan, the Student Life and Science Internship program adviser for the Faculty of Science. "Saba had her older sister Sara as a mentor to help her transition to university life and she wanted to give back and do the same for someone else."

"She was a little ball of energy and it was hard to keep up with her, actually," remembers Denise Hemmings, an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology who, along with Luke Eckersley, co-supervised Saba as a summer student in 2018. Saba then joined Hemmings' lab for an Honours research project from September 2018 to April 2019.

Hemmings says Saba's future was bright and filled with opportunity. She marvelled at her capacity to fill it with what was important.

"She was driven, but at the same time she was this absolutely caring person and had this incredibly rich life outside of academics. That was the balance in her life."

Daniel Ghods-Esfahani says service has always been a key theme in Saba's family. Ghods-Esfahani met Saba three years ago when they were both students at the U of A. What started as a friendship would grow into a loving relationship and the two hoped to one day practise medicine together. Now studying to become a doctor at the University of Calgary, Ghods-Esfahani believes Saba and her sister's outlooks on life were inspired by their upbringing.

"I think it can be traced back to their love for family and their mother. The amount of dedication and hard work that she had to her career and to ensuring a better life for her children was such a motivating factor in their minds. That shaped who they are as people."

"They taught me so many valuable lessons. They have shaped who I am today, which is one of the reasons why it's so difficult that they're gone."

While Saba's time was cut short, those who knew her say her impact on the people around her will not be soon forgotten.

"She was modest. She never promoted herself and never talked about anything amazing that she was doing, even though she was doing so many incredible things. She was extraordinary," says Riddell.

"She had this smile that went from her mouth all the way up to her eyes and it never left," adds Hemmings. "She had that all the time. That's the picture that I'll always remember of Saba."

'She really brought in a positive energy'

By Therese Kehler

Sara Saadat (right), alumna, 2019, Bachelor of Science in Psychology pictured here with her mother (left)

Sara Saadat, '19 BSc, had embarked on an exciting new stage of her life. After graduating last spring from the U of A with a science degree in psychology, she had moved from Edmonton to San Diego to start a clinical psychology program.

Sara, 23, had dreamed for years about being accepted into the program.

"She'd worked so hard. I remember when she got an interview, she was crying out of happiness," said Daniel Ghods-Esfahani, '19 BSc, who met the sisters three years ago and was in a relationship with Sara's younger sister, Saba, a U of A student.

Sara, Saba and their mother, Shekoufeh Choupannejad, an Edmonton obstetrician and gynecologist, had gone to Iran together to visit family. All three died Jan. 8 when the Ukraine International Airlines aircraft crashed minutes after takeoff in Tehran.

Back in August, the sisters had travelled to California together. Step by step over the next few weeks, they bought furniture, blankets, and other necessities, building a home for Sara's new life as a graduate student at Alliant International University.

"Moving to a new country on your own, especially when you have such a tight bond with your family, with your sister, can be very difficult. But Sara overcame all of that," said Ghods-Esfahani, who attends medical school at the University of Calgary.

Sara and Saba, who had planned to apply for medical school, often spoke about how much they admired their mother and the example she set to work hard and pursue their dreams, he said.

The family came to Canada in 2011, living in Halifax before coming to Edmonton in 2014. The experience of being immigrants made the sisters passionate about standing up for people who often feel they don't belong.

"Sara was a huge advocate for mental health and a huge advocate for LGBTQ+ - more so than any of my other friends," said Reyaan Shuaib, '17 BSc, '19 BCom, who met her in 2017. "Even myself, I would be upset internally, I would vocalize it, but I wouldn't do anything about it. She would."

Sara's strong work ethic shone during her studies at the U of A, said psychology professor Peter Dixon, who supervised her undergrad research project. She showed a keen interest in research and an attitude that promised a successful career in graduate school and beyond, he said. Her undergrad research project was presented to the Society for Text & Discourse at its July conference in New York.

Friends say Sara's decision to pursue a career in clinical psychology fit her to a T, given her ability to listen to problems and then come up with brilliant solutions.

"If you had problems and you thought nobody else would understand, she would make you feel warm and that everything is going to be OK," said Sirous Ghafuri, a fourth-year psychology student at the U of A.

She also had a knack for helping people get more in touch with their feelings. "Sharing that level of vulnerability wasn't easy, but she was able to do it with those that were close to her," said Ghods-Esfahani. "And that's what she saw in a true friendship."

Sara was passionate about nurturing those friendships, frequently filling the basement of the family's home with friends old and new, food, Persian pop music, and an infectious laugh that she shared with her mother and sister.

"She really brought in a positive energy. It was like her shadow," says Simran Gulati, who had known the sisters since they came to Edmonton.

"You could be going through a bad day and she would bring so much positivity. She was always so happy, so joyful. She was definitely the life of the party, wherever we went."

There is a lot to process as we deal with this tragic event. You may find that you need support at different times in the coming hours, days, and weeks ahead. You are not alone, and support is always available to all members of our community.

A full list of wellness services for undergraduate students can be found here.

A full list of wellness services for faculty, staff, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows can be found here.

Further information and a livestream/recording of Sunday's memorial service will be shared in the coming days on the university's main hub.