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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Nelson Baloian Receives FAST Research Grant

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In May 2023, American University of Armenia (AUA) Visiting Associate Professor Dr. Nelson Baloian was awarded the ADVANCE Research Grant from the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST). 

FAST’s mission is to support Armenia’s transformation into a science-driven country by 2041 through scientific discovery and innovation. To achieve this milestone, FAST has designed and structured numerous programs and initiatives, including the ADVANCE Research Grants. Designed in 2020, ADVANCE has provided funding for nine research projects, including 60 local and international researchers, thus far, and has welcomed foreign Principal Investigators from the United States, Germany, France, Belgium, and Chile. Fourteen non-formal trainings and workshops were organized within ADVANCE and three credit-based courses were conducted at partner higher education institutions. Five articles in Q1 journals and two conference proceedings have already been submitted by ADVANCE research groups. Research projects typically span three to four years, with each project receiving annual grant funding of up to $125,000.

Dr. Baloian’s three-year research project on “Developing interpretable, accurate, and robust regression and clustering methods” will be co-funded by AUA and jointly implemented. We spoke with Dr. Baloian to find out more about his journey in computer science, his research plans, and what keeps drawing him back to Armenia.  

1. Tell us about the lab you plan to open at AUA. What will you be focusing on?

Given the space restrictions that exist at AUA, opening a physical lab with a dedicated office or space inside a larger shared office would be difficult. However, the Covid-19 pandemic showed us that, especially in the computer science field, having a dedicated physical space is not a prerequisite to having a functioning lab. This does not mean that face-to-face meetings are not important; rather, it is not absolutely necessary to be in the same physical space with others in order to collaborate, though that would be desirable. Currently, we have a hybrid virtual lab that comprises ten people working on the development of interpretable predictive models in the field of artificial intelligence: three senior researchers, three postgraduate junior researchers, and four undergraduate students from AUA.

2. Why did you choose to open your lab at AUA?

Given my long-term involvement with the University, it was only natural for me to attach my lab to AUA. The fact that all participants are current or former AUA students and adjunct lecturers at AUA is the direct result of our selection process.

3. What sparked your interest in the field of computer science?

As an undergraduate student in engineering, I majored in hydraulics and was planning to pursue a master’s in hydraulics. That’s when I realized that I should develop more programming skills to solve recurrent problems in civil engineering. This was in the 80’s when little “off the shelf” software was available in any field — even Excel was not easily accessible. I decided to take more computer science courses and almost immediately fell in love with the field. Prior to graduating from my master’s program, the department offered to support my enrollment in Ph.D. studies abroad, on condition that I would seek a position in the department upon returning to Chile. I went to Germany for my Ph.D., and when I returned, I was offered a tenure track position in the Department of Computer Sciences at the Universidad de Chile (University of Chile). 

4. What are you teaching at AUA?

I have been teaching regularly at AUA since 2014. Over the last ten years, I have taught several courses, from beginner levels to the most advanced. Most of the courses I teach are on programming techniques in different stages or subareas.

5. What is your favorite part in teaching?

What I enjoy the most about teaching is to convey knowledge and values which extend beyond the technical subject matter. These include ethics, responsibility, commitment to our nation, fairness, etc. It is much more difficult to teach these values, but it is possible to do so even within the context of a technical course.  

6. How do you see the progression of the computer science field in Armenia?

The computer industry has developed quickly and in a healthy way. However, computer science is still weak. While there are some very talented groups that focus on artificial intelligence, cryptography, data security, and cloud computing, we still have a long way to go before reaching a healthy progression toward achieving the standards established by research groups in this field.

7. What does winning the FAST ADVANCE Research Grants hold for you?

Of course, any grant a researcher receives is of great importance, since it is a recognition of one’s past achievements and an opportunity to advance new research projects. Winning this grant in particular holds even greater significance, since it gives me the opportunity to stay in closer contact with Armenia and contribute to its development, especially in reference to its research culture. Within the ADVANCE grant, I will be able to increase the number of publications by Armenian researchers, organize international events, establish collaborations with national and local organizations, and promote the development of the discipline in Armenia.

 8. What does it mean to you, as a Diasporan Armenian from Chile, to be Armenian? How does your Armenian identity intersect with your other identities?

Being raised in a country not actively involved in the Armenian Diaspora, I always attributed a familial meaning to everything related to Armenian culture, including the music, language, and food. My Chilean identity has to do with my professional, academic, and social life outside the family. So, the impact of being in Armenia the first time is huge: the first impression one gets is that each and every inhabitant of this country is part of one’s own family, although the way of thinking in Armenia is very different from what we are accustomed to in Chile. 

9. What keeps drawing you back to Armenia and AUA?

Having a dream or desire that encourages me to get up every day and work to achieve a goal that makes my life meaningful is more important than academic or financial achievements, per se. This is exactly how I feel about coming to Armenia to teach at AUA and trying to contribute my own little piece toward the betterment of the country.

Founded in 1991, the American University of Armenia (AUA) is a private, independent university located in Yerevan, Armenia, affiliated with the University of California, and accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission in the United States. AUA provides local and international students with Western-style education through top-quality undergraduate and graduate degree and certificate programs, promotes research and innovation, encourages civic engagement and community service, and fosters democratic values.