On fast track at ETH
At the age of 29, Professor of Computer Science Mohsen Ghaffari is one of the youngest professors at ETH Zurich. But in his native Iran he originally studied quite a different subject.
Mohsen Ghaffari, just 29 years old, invites me into his office. The Iranian is one of the youngest professors ETH Zurich has ever had. In October 2016, he was appointed Tenure Track Assistant Professor of Computer Science. His small empire in the brick-built CAB Building on Universitätsstrasse is sparsely furnished: besides a neat desk, the room contains a light-coloured two-seater sofa. The walls are bare, apart from a few notes and formulas pinned to a board. What is it like to be appointed professor before your thirtieth birthday? Ghaffari smiles diffidently and ponders. It seems an awkward question. “To be honest, I don’t feel like a professor", he says finally. “I’d rather do without the title. I still see myself as a doctoral student, and probably will do for a long time to come.”
Nevertheless, he says he wanted to be a professor these last few years and worked hard to achieve it. “It’s a natural step in academic life. I always wanted to be a researcher and I enjoy teaching.” Ghaffari conducts research into theoretical computer science with a focus on distributed computing and network algorithms. His work combines mathematical methods derived from probability theory and graph theory with algorithm design and analysis. He makes connections with new areas of research in the field of high-volume data processing and social media.
Attending university at 13
Ghaffari lived in Iran until he was 22 years old. Both his parents are professionals: his father is a judge, his mother a school principal. Due to his father’s influence, he was interested in law, but turned to computer science at an early age. By the age of 13, when Ghaffari was still at secondary school, he was reading books on algorithm design and took courses on the subject at Urmia University in north-west Iran. But when it came to choosing a main subject for his degree, he put computer science and law aside.
Instead, he decided to study electrical engineering at Sharif University of Technology in Iran’s capital Tehran. “My motivation for doing so was actually pretty stupid,” Ghaffari recalls. In Iran, electrical engineering is the subject with the most prestige. Nearly all students placed in the top 100 in the university’s national aptitude tests choose this discipline. “There’s an element of prestige to it – I just followed the others.” But mid-way through his studies he realised that his true interest lay in computer science. In the end, he took his bachelor’s degree in both subjects. Today, Ghaffari has no regrets about his electrical engineering ‘detour’. “I was surrounded by the best students in the country. The competitive atmosphere taught me a lot.”
After graduating, Ghaffari moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, where he stayed until he completed his doctorate in 2016. He found the move to the US difficult. “MIT was overwhelming to begin with. I was suddenly surrounded by all these amazing researchers, whom I had only known by name up to that point.” But he gradually settled in, and after six years MIT felt like a second home.
No time for the mountains
Contact with ETH graduates at MIT made him think about applying to ETH Zurich. “I thought, if these people were trained at ETH, it must be a very good university,” says Ghaffari. His application was successful. In the autumn of last year, he left the United States and moved to Zurich on his own. Now he must get used to a new culture and language all over again.
“I have ups and downs,” he says, leaning back in his chair. A sunny spring day beckons outside. He hasn’t had time to get to know his new environment. “In Massachusetts, I drove to the mountains every Saturday in the summer. But not yet here in Switzerland,” says the keen cyclist and hiker. He works a great deal, but enjoys doing so. On the other hand, he was not prepared for the many tasks which a professor has to deal with besides doing research and teaching, such as administrative chores and taking thousands of small decisions. “I like the fact that I have a say and can make an impact. But it takes up a lot of time.”
He considers being a comparatively young professor an advantage when it comes to supporting doctoral students, as it lowers barriers. “It’s wonderful when young researchers get inspired by a topic because of me. I like helping to make their doctoral research an enjoyable experience.” He doesn’t see himself as a supervisor: “I try to avoid those kinds of words,” he stresses. Theoretical computer science, in particular, is a discipline characterised by flat hierarchies. “Good people produce good work. It happens rather frequently that young researchers solve problems which the older generation has been working on for years.”