Parting Thoughts as Eight ISI Graduate Research Assistants Earn their Doctoral Degrees 

by Julia Cohen

Photo Credit: Angel Itua/USC-ISI

“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Basel Shbita, a newly minted Ph.D. who worked as a Graduate Research Assistant at USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI). On Thursday, May 9th, ISIers in the Marina del Rey office gathered to celebrate the Spring 2024 GRA graduates, including eight who graduated with doctoral degrees, and two masters students.


Basel Shbita, Craig Knoblock, Binh Vu / Photo Credit: Angel Itua/USC-ISI

Craig Knoblock, the Keston Executive Director of USC’s Information Sciences Institute kicked off the event with opening remarks, and led the faculty advisors in giving touching tributes about the new grads. And the graduates themselves had plenty to say about their time at ISI.

Shbita described how obtaining his Ph.D. has impacted him: “The Ph.D. itself is an amazing journey that really matures you and makes you think differently. And I think that’s part of becoming a researcher. Now I get it!” He continued, “ISI is a unique place that brings a lot of different experiences together. To me, it’s truly the best incubator in the world.”


Jay Pujara, Avijit Thawani / Photo Credit: Angel Itua/USC-ISI

Pei Zhou recalled his first time at ISI, and being struck by the view, a sentiment shared by many. Beyond the boats and sunset, Zhou said he appreciated the freedom he had at ISI to choose his research problems. 


Yilei Zeng / Photo Credit: Angel Itua/USC-ISI

Avijit Thawani said, “ISI offers so much more than what other Ph.D. programs have to offer. There is campus, where you can attend classes and have classmates and work with people. But you also have this space at ISI full of amazing people working on stuff as big as quantum computing and launching space shuttles!”

Some of the grads took surprising paths on their journeys. Yilea Zeng said, “When I started at ISI – focusing on computational social science – I never dreamed I would end up in the gaming industry. But it has been such a fun Ph.D. because I have legit reasons to play games while I’m doing it!”


Luca Luceri, Julie Jiang / Photo Credit: Angel Itua/USC-ISI

Julie Jiang, recently included in the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science list and off to a job at Meta summed up her five year Ph.D. journey at ISI: “We did cool research and we went to cool happy hours.” 

As the ceremony drew to a close, one could feel both nostalgia and anticipation for the next chapter in each graduate’s journey. These students, who’ve spent years in the halls of ISI, where curiosity knows no bounds, are now poised to embark on new adventures and shape the future of science and innovation.


Photo Credit: Angel Itua/USC-ISI

Congratulations to all of ISI’s Spring 2024 Graduates!

Ph.D. Graduates
Yilei Zeng
Kexuan Sun
Meryem M’hamdi
Julie Jiang
Basel Shbita
Binh Vu
Avijit Thawani
Pei Zhou

M.S. Graduates
Namrata Sharma
Twinkle Dhanak

Published on May 13th, 2024

Last updated on May 16th, 2024

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