A Scientist's Advice on Ph.D.s and Publishing: Start Your Research ASAP But Take Small Steps

September 16, 2020

Physics Ph.D. student Mostafa Honari-Latifpour co-authored a paper on a classically complex problem. He describes his findings and shares his insights.

Mostafa Honari-Latifpour and a Peterson graph that has been color graphed
Mostafa Honari-Latifpour and a Peterson graph that has been color graphed

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

Imagine coloring a complex geometric figure so that no two adjacent corners are the same color. This, in a nutshell, is the graph coloring problem, a famous challenge in math and physics that is even used as the basis for brainteasers.

A new paper by Professor Mohammad-Ali Miri  (GC/Queens College, Physics) and Ph.D. student Mostafa Honari-Latifpour has identified a new way to solve this classically complex problem — using laser physics. Their research appears in Nanophotonics and is potentially useful in many fields that require optimal arrangements of multiple variables, including finance, computational biology, and even scheduling. 

Miri calls Honari-Latifpour a “rising star.” The Graduate Center spoke to Honari-Latifpour about his field, why he came to CUNY, and his advice for other Ph.D. students looking to publish. 


Peterson graph-coloring-before-after news post

A Peterson graph before and after graph coloring.

The Graduate Center: The term “nano” literally means one-billionth but is used more generally to connote microscopic scale. What, in very simple terms, is nanophotonics and how does it apply to the way we live?

Honari-Latifpour:  Nanophotonics is the science of understanding and controlling light at extremely small length scales. At such lengths, light can have unexpected properties compared to our everyday life experience with it. Nanophotonics tries to understand these unusual properties and apply it wherever we need to generate light, such as in lasers or LEDs, or manipulate and route light, such as in a lens or an optical fiber.

These capabilities can also be applied to many applications such as precise health care and diagnosis equipment, ultra-fast communications, precision fabrication tools, and even compact solar cells and flat TV screens.

GC: You’re from Tehran. What drew you to The Graduate Center and CUNY?

Honari-Latifpour: I wanted to get involved in cutting-edge research. I also did my master's in nanophotonics, which, as an applied science, has both theoretical and experimental aspects. Therefore, getting involved in serious research requires access to both great people and equipment. CUNY was among the very few places where I could find both in my field.   

GC: What has it been like for you to study in New York City?

Honari-Latifpour: Living in a busy city might not seem like the best option for those that just want to sit down and do calculations, but I found that the resources and network of people that you can access is worth the hustle. In the first month after I arrived in New York City, I was able to attend a conference in my field that included almost all the leading researchers and top figures from around the world, which was a fantastic experience for me.

GC: Any advice for fellow students looking to publish papers?

Honari-Latifpour: Besides your current project, have multiple other problems in the back of your mind which you intend to work on in the future. This way you’ll have other ideas ready once you are done with your current project. Also, in doing research, we often get stuck making slow or incremental progress when it comes to important problems. When that happens, it is best to break it down to smaller, easier parts, and to progress (and publish) over time in multiple smaller steps rather than a big one.

GC: Any advice for future physics Ph.D. students?

Honari-Latifpour: The main objective of a Ph.D. student is to do research. Therefore, my best advice is to get involved in research as soon as you can, possibly before starting graduate school. Many incoming graduate students have the undergraduate mindset of first “learning it all” before going to solve the problems, but I think that's futile for a Ph.D. student as the knowledge available to you is practically infinite. Also, probably no one before has worked on the exact problems that you are going to solve. Therefore, in my opinion the best course of action is to start by working on more accessible ideas and learning your way from there. 
GC: What are you working on now? 

Honari-Latifpour: My current research is focused on developing new tools for computation using optics. The general-purpose digital computers that we use every day are very good at many things and also convenient, but there are some applications that require faster speeds or larger computational capacity, beyond what is currently accessible using these "conventional" computers. In such cases, application-specific computing systems are the way to go. These are computing machines tailored to a specific kind of computation, and they’re very good at it. 

The paper we recently published (about the graph coloring problem) is an example of using a computing machine designed with lasers to solve certain optimization problems very fast compared to conventional digital computers.  I think the demand for such "unconventional" computing systems will increase in the future as the need for faster and large-scale computation is increasing very fast.
GC: What do you hope to do ultimately in terms of a career?

Honari-Latifpour: Technology careers range from pure engineering work based on well-known science to working on ideas that may find application in the next few decades. I like to be somewhere in the middle, where my main focus would be to solve problems with short-term (and maybe mid-term) technological implications. Many companies offer such jobs for research scientists.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.