Like many students at the University of Oregon, Donna Hooshmand enjoys watching shows on Netflix.
But television and movie streaming sites aren’t quite as relaxing as they used to be, thanks to research she is conducting in the computer and information science department. “It’s ruined Netflix for me a little bit,” Hooshmand says with a laugh. “There’s a part of me that wanders off and starts thinking about new topics and questions I could ask with this research.”
Hooshmand, a junior in computer science and mathematics, is experiencing all the highs and lows of a demanding undergraduate research project. It’s testing her mettle—but as someone whose home is 7,000 miles away, Hooshmand knows something about mental fortitude.
Born in Portland, Hooshmand and her twin sister, Donia, moved with their family to Kerman, Iran, when they were six months old. The girls attended a competitive high school there, then returned to Portland at age 16 for better stateside college opportunities. They were students at Portland Community College for a year before enrolling at the UO in fall 2018. (Donia is majoring in architecture.)
Research isn’t new to Hooshmand. As a high school student at the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents, Hooshmand, her sister, and their friend, Hasti Darabi, collaborated on an innovative chemistry project.
Inspired by the desert climate and water-guzzling pistachio farms in the region, the students spent three years developing a Jell-O-like compound to save 70 to 75 percent of the water typically wasted during the agricultural process. Made entirely of natural and degradable ingredients, their product is a much more efficient way to water pistachio crops.
Hooshmand is only half-joking when she says they came up with the award-winning project as an excuse to ditch school, forgoing classes to head to the Ebne Sina Research Center and Laboratory in Kerman, a research institution associated with the Ministry of Education.
“We had the whole lab to ourselves, and we would get very bad street food and have these late nights working on our research,” Hooshmand says. “It might not sound like fun, but just the fact that we were doing something with our knowledge and learning was very intriguing.”
Innately curious and always self-motivated, Hooshmand was drawn to the UO in part for its challenging research opportunities.
Last spring, Hooshmand started collaborating with Professor Reza Rejaie on an analysis of video streaming providers, including Netflix and Hulu. Using captured data for exchanged traffic between the internet and UOnet, the university’s campus network, Hooshmand is exploring internet usage by the UO community.
“There are a lot of things we can check,” she says. “For example, we can see what percentage of user traffic comes from Netflix or Hulu.” Hooshmand would also like to track time spent with specific providers, how the quality of delivered video from providers has changed, and usage across years and also at different hours of the day.
For this analysis, Hooshmand needs to “train” a computer model to recognize the digital signature that a connection from Netflix or Hulu leaves on a network to identify related connections from each provider with the matching signature. This process is “machine learning,” a form of artificial intelligence that is driving technology today.
“In simple terms, it’s about making the computer learn what a video stream is and asking it to identify the video streams for me,” Hooshmand says.
Throughout the spring and summer, Hooshmand focused her efforts on writing an algorithm—essentially, a series of instructions for the computer—to capture the desired data. The process hasn’t been easy. Her first attempt didn’t crunch the data quickly enough. The coronavirus pandemic also slowed her down, hampering Hooshmand’s ability to obtain in-person feedback or bounce around ideas with faculty members and other students.
“To be honest, I’ve been stumbling at every step,” Hooshmand says. “This is very different from studying for class or for a test, or even doing a project for a class.”
Despite these struggles, Hooshmand has distinguished herself as an outstanding student, receiving the Phillip Seeley Scholarship in Computer and Information Science. Rejaie describes her as “very goal-driven and hard-working” and says she is handling the challenges of the project with composure.
“We always tell students that they need to be emotionally strong to deal with the ups and downs of a research project,” Rejaie says. “When they get stuck somewhere, we encourage them to try new ways to push forward to deal with the problem at hand.”
When Hooshmand begins to feels overwhelmed or homesick, she turns to UO’s Persian Student Association, an apolitical group she cofounded in fall 2019 as civil unrest swept across Iran. The 10 or so members meet to speak Farsi, drink tea, and plan holiday celebrations and other events.
An unofficial ambassador for her country, Hooshmand is eager to educate people about Iran. “There are a lot of misconceptions,” she says, but “Iran is an incredible place.”
For her academic focus, Hooshmand credits her parents, Reza Hooshmand and Bita Karamooz. A civil engineer and architect, respectively, both parents are finishing PhDs in construction management at Tehran University. Reza is also a professor at the Kerman branch of Islamic Azad University.
Karamooz followed her daughters to Oregon and is living in Portland while working on her thesis, but Hooshmand hasn’t seen her father since December 2018 because of immigration regulations. Their regular conversations through WhatsApp are essential, even though the signal often falters, leading to dropped calls and frustration.
“We’ve always been very close,” Hooshmand says. “He’s been my academic coach for as long as I can remember, and the possibility of not having him here when I graduate is very daunting.”
On her toughest days, when Hooshmand misses her father and faces setbacks in the research, she makes Persian food to remind herself of home. Then she thinks about the many steps that brought her to an apartment in Eugene and the educational opportunities that still await.
Kelsey Schagemann is a writer and editor in Chicago.