Research & Innovation

Global Citizen: Dariya Baizhigitova ’24

The Pinnacle Scholar from Kazakhstan uses AI and other computational methods to search for promising new medicines — while also running several nonprofits and staying active on campus

Growing up in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Dariya Baizhigitova ’24 always felt she’d become a doctor like her father — even though he advised her it would be a difficult path.

Her natural aptitude for math and science, including a silver medal at an international mathematics competition, only fueled that desire.

When it came time for college, Baizhigitova set her sights on the metro New York City region, discovering Stevens somewhat accidentally via a significant amount of unusually positive Reddit chatter.

In the end, she decided on the university as the perfect landing place for its combination of engineering expertise, healthcare programming and access to New York — then was awarded a prestigious Pinnacle Scholarship (which cannot be applied for) upon her acceptance.

“My parents always said, ‘be a global citizen. Be unafraid. Travel.’ So that’s what I did,” says the chemical engineering major.

“Dariya is one of the top students that I have educated,” adds NIH- and NSF-supported computational chemistry professor Yong Zhang, who recently co-authored and submitted a journal paper in collaboration with Baizhigitova. “She possesses unique strengths and contributions to our research.”

Designing, testing new molecules; 'playing with geometry'

Baizhigitova’s academic pathway then began unusually: completion of her first year entirely online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the ten-hour time difference, that meant sometimes rising at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning to attend lectures and even take exams.

“That was a little difficult while,” she concedes. “I got through it, but taking tests at four in the morning, I probably wasn’t at my best. By spring, professors began allowing me to schedule things more conveniently, which I really appreciated.”

As she progressed through those early Stevens years, a realization began to set in for Bazhigitova: research was becoming more interesting than healthcare delivery.

She even interned at Jersey City Medical Center one summer to get a closer look at the endpoint to medical research: caring for patients. The internship, ironically, hardened her convictions about research.

“It was a great experience, and I came away realizing the science is evolving so fast now that you don’t necessarily need to go to medical school or become a doctor to contribute to human health, to make a difference,” she says.

“With drug-discovery research, you use knowledge to create more knowledge. You’re exploring something completely new, completely different. There are so many possibilities. I guess that’s why I enjoy what we do in our lab.”

Her senior year has been anything but relaxed so far: it includes significant research, senior-design meetings and plenty of extracurriculars.

“I’m not coasting,” she laughs. “This semester I am putting in the most research time I’ve ever done here.”

Yong Zhang (yzhang37)Baizhigitova works in the computational chemistry lab of Professor Yong ZhangIndeed, for 20 hours each week in Zhang’s laboratory, Baizhigitova runs simulations using software outfitted with parameters for density functional theory (DFT): a mathematical model with quantum properties whose calculations produce structures, geometries and expected properties of “new” molecules that don’t even yet exist. Some of the work involves potential breast-cancer therapy candidates.

“We try to draw out reactions,” she explains. “Chemical reactions may seem instantaneous, but there are actually a lot of intermediate steps as they happen."

"We look at each of these steps, and — importantly — the transitions that lead to them. A big aspect of our research is finding useful reaction pathways.”

Why is that important? The mechanism of a known medicine that has proven useful at fighting one disease might well apply to a similar — or even completely different — molecule or disorder, too. Or researchers may wish to speed up a known reaction, or make its end-products more bio-available in the body.

That’s where Baizhigitova comes in.

She sets up overnight experimental run after run on her lab software, sometimes up to 20 variations of a single test molecule or pathway simulation, searching for promising leads — then checking her computer eagerly every morning to learn which experiments worked well (and which didn’t).

“We get to play with geometry while we try to make effective new medicines,” she laughs.

Zhang says her contributions, even as an undergrad, are making a real difference in the field.

“Recently she has made a significant advance in an ongoing project which studies the previously unknown enzymatic formation mechanism of a critical signaling molecule that can be used to treat a number of diseases,” he points out.

“Undoubtedly she is one of the most productive undergraduates I have ever had.”

Mentoring, tutoring, managing nonprofits

Now, as Baizhigitova wraps up her undergraduate career, a number of graduate-school options are on the table — including Stevens' own masters and doctoral programs.

She’s also part of a senior design team of chemical engineers under the advisement of professor Pin-Kuang Lai. That team is applying AI and machine learning to properties of various molecules and elements.

“Machine learning and data science are such a big part of computational chemistry,” she notes.

While she ponders those next steps, Baizhigitova remains closely engaged in campus life, serving as a course assistant; tutoring fellow undergrads in math, chemistry and physics topics like mechanics and magnetism through Stevens’ acclaimed Academic Support Center; serving a key role with the campus chapter of the Society of Women Engineers; and serving on the CEMS department’s nascent Student Advisory Board.

She’s also proud of her work creating and managing nonprofit organizations that help others.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Baizhigitova co-founded Teaching for Heroes — an international online effort that paired the children of frantically busy (and often away-from-home) healthcare workers with online tutors

That project, started on a shoestring with friends and a simple website, eventually grew to involve more than 1,000 children and tutors at the peak of the pandemic.

The experience would later lead her to co-found a second nonprofit, Zeseku, a mental health resource for Kazakhstani teens. That forum posted information about depression, suicide and therapy options for users — and enabled anonymity when connecting those users with professional therapists.

“Mental health is a huge problem in the post-Soviet Union nations,” she explains. “In my country, it’s estimated that 30 percent of teenage deaths are due to suicide. There is a real stigma attached to visiting a therapist, so people make choices not to get help based on what they think people will think about them.”

Now, as her undergraduate career winds down and the future beckons, Baizhigitova reflects upon how fortunate she was to find Stevens.

“People here at the university really lift each other up,” she sums. “That’s something I really appreciate. It’s not something I really expected going into the college experience, but it’s what I discovered here.”

“This place is like a family. And I love it.”