BLACKSBURG, Va. — The 40-plus graduate students Saied Mostaghimi has mentored and maintained relationships with throughout the past 38 years are a testament to his impact as a dedicated educator and administrator in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
As are the countless number of faculty he has championed, the programs he has fostered, the research he has conducted, and the effect his leadership, knowledge, and admirable personal and professional ethics have had on his colleagues.
Mostaghimi is retiring as the college’s associate dean for research and graduate studies and director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, effective May 31.
During his tenure at Virginia Tech, he served in several positions as he evolved from professor to department head to his most recent role of advancing the college’s far-reaching and innovative research on agricultural, environmental, life sciences, natural, and community resource issues related to the future needs of Virginia, the nation, and the world.
“Saied worked tirelessly to advance the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,” said Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “He supported our academic departments and schools, the agricultural research and extension centers, and has provided significant leadership and service for the university, Agency 229, and programs at regional and national levels. Saied was an advocate for all of us and has been recognized by his peers across the nation as a leader for university research and education.”
The forces that guided the way
Mostaghimi grew up in southern Iran in a family deeply rooted in agriculture. His father and grandfather were farmers, and at about age 8, he found himself and his older brother in the fields working alongside them. Their farm was in a very diverse agricultural part of Iran, near the Persian Gulf, that supports a wide variety of crops. The family grew wheat and barley, pistachios, cotton, almonds, pomegranates, and vegetables.
Although his parents held just a sixth-grade education, they understood the power of knowledge and urged their children to pursue higher education. The family moved from the small farming town to the city of Shiraz, where Mostaghimi received his high school education and undergraduate degree in agricultural engineering. Inspired by his cousin, who had traveled to the United States in pursuit of a graduate degree, Mostaghimi did the same.
In 1976, he landed at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. in agricultural engineering and, more importantly, met his wife of 45 years, Patty.
Mostaghimi enjoys sharing the tale of the time they first met and the person responsible for their introduction.
His name was Kenny, and he was a janitor at the university. On one cold winter’s night, the night Mostaghimi first arrived in Urbana-Champaign, he wandered into a residence hall, lost, confused, and with little knowledge of the English language. Tall and observant, as Mostaghimi recalled him, Kenny took control of the stressful situation. He walked up the staircase, knocked on Patty’s door — she, too, is an Iranian native — and guided her to the rescue.
They’ve been together since.
Mostaghimi aspired to return to Iran to teach, but the Iranian Revolution interrupted his plans. His Iranian passport was terminated, and he was stuck. A period of his life he once considered bad luck, he now views as fate.
Now married to Patty, pregnant with their first of four children, Mostaghimi looked for graduate assistant opportunities. For several years, they stayed in Urbana-Champaign, then transferred to the University of Minnesota, where Mostaghimi served briefly as an assistant scientist. When his work permit was issued and ample research experience and a few publications expanded on his CV, the universities soon came calling, including Virginia Tech. It was his first choice, for many reasons, including the opportunity to contribute to the Chesapeake Bay program, which had just launched at the time.
In 1984, Mostaghimi was offered a job as an assistant professor in biological systems engineering. He eventually became head of that department and has served in his current dean and director roles since 2009.
Recently, he reflected on his career.
A Conversation with Saied Mostaghimi
Research, faculty, and graduate student impact: “My real interest has always been in research and education, and whether as faculty or department head or associate dean, I always kept my hands in doing my own research, in addition to hopefully facilitating the research process for our faculty. One of the highlights of my faculty career, in addition to the publications, awards, and recognitions that I have received over the years, are the more than 40 graduate students that graduated under my supervision. I’m still in contact with most of them. I still joyfully write recommendation letters every time they try for a promotion, an award, or another job. I’m very proud of them. A lot of them are university professors across the United States or overseas and are making significant contributions to society. I always enjoyed the teaching and mentoring aspects of my career because of these students.
“When I transitioned to department head, I saw the broader impact that one could make at the department level as opposed to my own research group. That’s one of the things that I’m really proud of. I had an opportunity to hire several new faculty, expand the bioprocess engineering program, and worked to increase the number of students in biological systems engineering’s (BSE) master’s and Ph.D. programs. When I left the department head position, we went from about a total of 17 graduate students to more than 70 graduate students. An increased number of Ph.D. candidates made significant impacts on the national ranking of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.
“In all my roles at Virginia Tech, I focused on technology and innovation. I remember my first day as associate dean, I had a meeting with someone in my office. I opened the door after the meeting, and there were like eight faculty standing outside of my office. I said, ‘What are you here for?’ And they said, ‘Well, we need to get your signature on our proposals before we submit them.’ I thought, ‘That’s a waste of faculty time.’ So, I implemented an electronic proposal submission system so that they didn’t have to come over here in person every time they needed to submit a proposal. That was one of the first things that I felt really good about: saving faculty time.”
Agricultural Research and Extension Centers (AREC): “When I started my position as the associate dean and director of Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, it was clear that the ARECs needed more attention as there was significant need for facility and equipment upgrades, filling gaps in faculty expertise, and mending relationships with their stakeholders. So, I spent a lot of time building and forging relationships and connections with stakeholders and the communities in which they are located. We started working on that in a consistent manner, by participating in various activities, holding listening sessions, seeking their inputs regarding their needs, and developing plans to address them.
“I am very happy with the relationships that we now have with the stakeholders. They’re amazing supporters of the ARECs and the college, and they understand that we have a genuine interest in promoting agriculture, regardless of where in the state they are, and I think that has made a lot of difference in regaining their trust. I’m particularly proud of the fact that we were able to get some resources from the General Assembly for upgrading equipment and internet connectivity at the ARECs and have made some progress in upgrading facilities and infrastructure. I think these improvements show our commitment to agriculture from the stakeholders’ perspective more than anything else.”
Smart Farm Innovation Network and the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture: “I am very proud of the progress we have made toward our goal of establishing the college as a research leader to drive innovation and to advance agriculture and food systems in the era of automation and digital agriculture. I was recently cleaning out my files, and I came across the two-page draft that I had written on an initiative that was first called the Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources. The goal was to try to develop an initiative that would better engage our stakeholders. We held a summit in Richmond and invited more than 120 agricultural leaders, including industry, commodity boards, government agencies and producers, to participate in the two-day summit. In extensive round table discussions, we asked for their inputs on the needs of agriculture and natural resources industry and ways that our college and Virginia Tech could assist with these. Very productive and outstanding discussions took place.
“As a result, we came back and focused on ways that we could incorporate their suggestions in our research and outreach programs. What we came up with was a plan for developing the Smart Farm Innovation Network. A network of people and resources and expertise to enable the development and deployment of a wide array of innovative technologies that will increase overall efficiency, resilience, and sustainability of agricultural and natural resources production systems.
“From the Smart Farm Innovation Network, we grew the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture (CAIA). CAIA now has over 140 faculty affiliated with it, and quite a few from other colleges are engaged in it as well. With a high degree of faculty involvement and its effective leadership, CAIA maintains a forward-looking approach in establishing its mission and goals that are focused on utilizing technology to make agriculture production more efficient, safer and in an environmentally sound manner.”
Research programs: “One of the goals that I had set for our research program was to increase the number of large proposals submitted and awards received by our faculty. We hired a new grant coordinator for the college, focusing on assisting the faculty with submission of large interdisciplinary proposals. We brought professional grant writers to campus to teach faculty how to write winning proposals and developed several incentives for faculty leading large interdisciplinary proposals. These efforts are making a difference as during each of the past five years, we achieved a new record in awards received. This year, with about a month left in the current fiscal year, we are already 25 percent over the previous year’s awards amount.
“I think a lot of this progress is a result of the talented faculty we have hired, their tremendous dedication to the research programs and, hopefully, due to some facilitation and capacity building through various initiatives that we have established in the college.
“I’ve always taken pride in the relationships that I have built with people, whether they’re in this college, or not. It’s amazing how many people I know across the university. Of course, after 38 years, that’s natural. But I think that’s the part that I’m really going to miss the most during my retirement.”
Upon retirement, the Mostaghimis plan to travel and spend quality time with their children and grandchildren. They will remain in Blacksburg.
–Max Esterhuizen, Virginia Tech