Marine veteran Zeeshan Parvez became an explosives expert during his time in Marine Special Operations Command. Now the UCLA doctoral student is becoming an expert in ways to protect service members from explosives.

“Overseas you see improvised explosives used against Americans, and they’re some of the more dangerous things on the battlefield,” Parvez said. “Even if the enemy changes, explosives are going to remain. I want to try to make it safer.”

On his road to create a business that can provide the tools and training to decrease military deaths from explosives, Parvez came to study materials chemistry in UCLA’s chemistry and biochemistry department. The doctoral student is also a 2018 Tillman Scholar and the scheduled student speaker at UCLA’s Veterans Day Ceremony on Friday, Nov. 9. He is scheduled to speak alongside UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and Tess Banko, the executive director of the UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center.

Parvez, now 29, grew up in Rhode Island. Despite the discrimination Parvez faced as a Pakistani-American after 9-11, he always wanted to join the military and serve the country, he said. In high school he joined the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, and began learning about the different branches of the military.

“I was always attracted to the special operations community, and I wanted to see if I could make it,” Parvez said. “The Marines had the most potential for combat experience and routes to the special operations community.”

In 2007 after he graduated high school, he joined the Marines Corps. He was selected to join Marine Special Operations Command, known as MARSOC, and deployed to Pakistan. As a critical skills operator, he became an explosives expert and a “breacher,” carefully devising explosives to get his team into buildings with as little damage or risk as possible. He also specialized in communications — both technology like satellite systems and phones, but also putting his Urdu language skills to use.

By the time he left the service in 2011, “The Marines gave me more than I ever expected,” Parvez said. “I got a real step up on life.”

He went to Pennsylvania State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, then attended the University of Rhode Island where he earned a master’s in energetic chemistry – that is, explosives — and a simultaneous M.B.A., a pair of degrees intended to bring him closer to his planned consulting business. Next up is his doctorate at UCLA, followed by hopes of gaining experience at a consulting firm before he opens up shop for himself.

Parvez currently works in the lab of Alexander Spokoyny, an assistant professor in chemistry and biochemistry.

“He is a very bright and sharp individual, with a unique set of expertise that spans both academic and military R & D,” Spokoyny said. “His current Ph.D. work in my laboratory is poised to make a serious impact in the field of energy storage.”

Initially, Parvez said, transitioning out of the military and back to civilian life was challenging. Now, he stays connected with UCLA’s Veteran Resource Center. He studies and socializes in their lounge, and regularly volunteers with the VRC at a local garden on the nearby VA campus, where a group of UCLA student veterans are reviving the once-abandoned space for use by veterans living at the VA.

“I try to stay involved,” Parvez said during an interview in UCLA’s Veteran Resource Center. “I like the social community and service events. For those just transitioning back to civilian life, it’s difficult. If you don’t have this type of environment, it’s a bigger struggle, for sure. That’s why I keep in touch with this community. I appreciate the support, and I want to be here for the new veterans who are just transitioning back to civilian life.”

Whether through volunteering, helping other veterans adjust to civilian life, or planning a business to increase safety for deployed soldiers, Parvez is big on giving back to his community. And after seeing how bombs and improvised devices are used overseas, he’s got big plans and a long list of ideas for how he can help with explosives prevention, detection, and mitigation.

“Too many of my friends have given the ultimate sacrifice,” Parvez said. “I want to make it safer out there.”