Justin Airas smiles with a Scottish terrier and a Westie terrier.

Graduate Student Spotlight: Justin Airas

Categories: Students

Chemistry Graduate Student Justin Airas describes his research and answers 20 random questions as part of the Graduate Student Spotlight series.

Justin Airas is a second-year graduate student in Professor Bin Zhang’s theoretical chemistry group. He grew up in Glastonbury, Connecticut and went to high school and undergrad in Richmond, Virginia.

“I was lucky enough to have an amazing undergraduate computational chemistry research experience (shoutout to my undergrad PI, Prof. Carol A. Parish),” said Airas. “The more I dove into the field, the more problems I encountered without existing methods that could be used to find solutions. I chose to pursue my Ph.D. so that I could contribute new methods to facilitate the simulation of complex biochemical systems. My research focuses on using neural networks as force fields for molecular dynamics simulations.”

As the subject of this month’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Justin reveals his three favorite fictional characters, the career he’d choose if he didn’t pursue one in STEM, the museum he’d open with a $5M grant, and more!

  1. What’s something common from your childhood that will seem strange to future generations?
    Bringing movie disc cases and a portable DVD player / screen on long car rides, rather than just bringing a tablet.
  2. If you could pick any career other than the one you’ve chosen, what would it be?
    Raising alpaca, training service dogs, or more likely an animal psychologist.
  3. What bit of trivia do you know that is very interesting but also very useless?
    A “moment” was a medieval unit of time roughly corresponding to 90 seconds.
  4. Who are three of your favorite fictional characters?
    John Keating from Dead Poets Society, Héctor Rivera from Coco, and Auri from The Kingkiller Chronicle.
  5. If you were given five million dollars to open a small museum, what kind of museum would you create?
    Andean textile art history.
  6. What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
    The variance in quality of different fast-food chicken sandwiches.
  7. What’s worth spending more on to get the best?
  8. If you suddenly became a master at woodworking, what would you make?
    German Nutcrackers.
  9. If someone narrated your life, who would you want to be the narrator?
    Samuel L. Jackson.
  10. If you could know the truth behind every conspiracy, but you would instantly die if you hinted that you knew the truth, would you want to know?
    No, the most fun part of a conspiracy or mystery is never really knowing the answer and speculating with others. I wouldn’t even last a week before accidentally letting something slip.
  11. If you had unlimited funds to build a house that you would live in for the rest of your life, what would the finished house be like?
    Geothermal heating and solar panels, regardless of the design I‘d want my house to be as independent from fossil fuels as possible.
  12. What are your top three favorite movies?
    Shrek 2, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the 2013 film with Ben Stiller), and Monsters Inc.
  13. What piece of entertainment do you wish you could erase from your mind so that you could experience for the first time again?
    Super Mario Galaxy 2, mostly for the music and the sense of wonder it filled me with as a kid.
  14. What is something that a ton of people are obsessed with but you just don’t get the point of?
    Coffee, it doesn’t even briefly make me feel more awake, I immediately get tired
  15. What sport could you play the longest in a televised game, without anyone discovering you aren’t a professional athlete?
    Baseball, as a designated hitter who also happens to be last in the lineup.
  16. What food do you crave most often?
    Tacos, but sushi is a close second.
  17. What was your favorite book as a child, and what is your favorite book now?
    I never had a favorite individual book, but I definitely have favorite series. As a kid I loved The Rangers Apprentice Series, and now my favorite is The Kingkiller Chronicle.
  18. If you could know the absolute and total truth to one question, what question would you ask?
    Will we ever communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence?
  19. What are you most looking forward to in the next decade?
    Discoveries from NASA’s Dragonfly Mission to Saturn’s moon Titan.
  20. What is special about the place you grew up?
    Belltown Hill Orchards, Cotton Hollow, The Old Cider Mill, ice cream at Robb’s Farm, the STEM-focused elementary magnet school I attended (then called EHGEMS), and the lifelong friends I met there.

Many thanks to Justin for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come.