Awad Abdelhalim and Ayella Maile-Moskowitz, from the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, have both been presented with the 2021 Outstanding Graduate Student of the Year award by the Virginia Tech Graduate School. This award recognizes students for their character, service, outstanding contributions, and academic achievements.

Abdelhalim is a Ph.D. candidate in transportation systems engineering and has been a graduate student at Virginia Tech since 2016. His research in transportation systems engineering combines two things that he loves: engineering and travel. Specifically, his current research focuses on the development of algorithms and frameworks that utilize machine learning, computer vision, and simulation modeling to anticipate and address safety concerns at traffic intersections.

These technologies rely on collecting large quantities of traffic-related data and running experiments in simulation environments. “Traffic crashes are one of the leading causes of death in the world, averaging over 3,000 deaths per day. Working to address this issue and improve traffic safety given the knowledge and technological tools at our disposal today is, in my opinion, a moral obligation more than just a research interest,” Abdelhalim said.  

Abdelhalim completed his undergraduate degree in civil engineering in his native country of Sudan before earning his master’s degree in transportation infrastructure and systems engineering from Virginia Tech. He plans to earn his doctoral degree in 2021, and on his way to earning it, he has taken on a number of leadership roles and has been engaged in many campus organizations, including the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity; the Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence, serving as vice president of the Graduate Student Assembly; and the International Students Advisory Board.

Montasir Abbas, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, commended Abdelhalim for his dedication and exceptional capabilities, noting that those qualities will make him successful wherever his career takes him.

Following graduation with his doctoral degree, Abdelhalim hopes to work with intelligent transportation systems, data science, and public policy. “I believe that the intersection of those disciplines is integral to the advancement of modern societies and is an excellent avenue to promote equity and social justice,” he said.  

Maile-Moskowitz is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental and water resources engineering. She received her bachelor’s degree in environmental science and engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park, but wanted to study something more technical and to focus on immediate challenges that people face.

“I found that civil and environmental engineering fit perfectly with those goals while allowing me to continue to do wastewater research, which I had already become interested in,” Maile-Moskowitz said.

While her research has always focused on wastewater, prior to the pandemic, she primarily concentrated on antibiotic resistance. When the pandemic emerged, however, she found herself in a unique position to help. She could apply similar methods that were already used to look for antibiotic resistance in wastewater to look instead for the RNA from SARS-CoV-2. 

Maile-Moskowitz was lead on the team that established a sewage sampling network across campus for SARS-CoV-2 testing. “I am doing this research in an attempt to keep our community safe,” she said. “One of the amazing facets of the research is that it has brought individuals together from across the world as methods have been developed, tested, and shared. Their help, guidance, and encouragement are reminders of why I do this research, and, specifically, who I am doing it for."

Her advisors acknowledged her talent in mentoring undergraduate students in their research and inspiring her peers to serve their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Maile-Moskowitz's advisor, Peter Vikesland, the Nick Prillaman Professor, praised her effort to “go above and beyond time and time again this past year.”

Her co-advisor, Amy Pruden, Virginia Tech University Distinguished Professor and the W. Thomas Rice Professor in Engineering, agreed. “The sacrifices that she has made over the past year to put her dissertation research aside so that she could serve our Hokie community in doing her part to keep us safe have been truly admirable,” Pruden said.

Following her graduation, Maile-Moskowitz hopes to continue doing wastewater research at the university, government, or industry level.