ASU film grad wants to teach the art of critique

November 29, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been an unwanted source of stress and trauma for most people, it has spurred some to make positive changes. One such “silver lining” was the impetus it provided for Arizona State University online student Adam Khromachou to reevaluate what was important to him. Portrait of graduating ASU student Adam Khromachou, who has a beard and is wearing a backwards ballcap. Adam Khromachou is graduating from ASU this fall with a Bachelor of Arts in film and media studies and a 4.0 GPA. He is in the midst of applying to graduate school to further his career in film criticism. Download Full Image

At the time of the 2020 shutdown, Khromachou had been in Los Angeles for a couple of years, working sporadically as a background actor and production assistant. He took the opportunity of the film industry’s pause to return to school — and made good on his decision to “better” himself so he could mentor the next generation. This fall, Khromachou is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in film and media studies and a 4.0 GPA. He is in the midst of applying to graduate school to further his career in film criticism.

Khromachou discovered his love of film analysis early in life — more on that later! — and recently has honed the skill by writing and narrating more than 1,500 “60-Second Film Reviews” on TikTok. He currently has upwards of 30,000 followers.

Khromachou further developed critical skills while working as a grader for beginning film studies classes at ASU, a position for which only top undergraduates are eligible. In that capacity, he helped evaluate student writing and moderated discussion boards for online classes. “Adam’s unique profile as a film and media studies student with his own TikTok film blog gives him a practical perspective that he’s been able to share with hundreds of students each semester,” said Associate Professor Kevin Sandler, who teaches in the ASU film and media studies program and who has worked with Khromachou on several independent studies projects.

“Adam’s smart-takes for his blog and his acute analysis in papers for my class convinced me that it would be a pleasure to mentor him in preparation for his graduate school applications,” said Sandler.

Khromachou’s academic advisors in the Department of English describe him as “super cool” and “doing awesome” in his studies. We chatted a bit more with the budding film critic to find out what why he chose ASU and what it has been like to start over.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: It was actually in the middle of the pandemic shutdown. I had moved to LA in 2018 and worked in the film industry. I had a lot of time to reflect and made the important decision to pursue my true passion of writing about film, as well as teaching it on an academic level. I never completed my bachelor’s degree and attended a trade school in 2011, so this was my opportunity to achieve a major life goal and pursue my dreams.

My love of cinema began in 1989 at the age of 6. My mother took me to see Tim Burton's “Batman.” I was fascinated, terrified, tense, infatuated and thrilled all at the same time. I had never seen anything like it. “Batman” immediately became my favorite superhero and all I wanted to do at that point was watch movies, many of which were beyond my age of understanding. By the time I was 8, I was regularly flipping through the film section of the newspaper and reading trade (magazines) like Entertainment Weekly to learn as much as I could. When I was 9, my dad took me to the theater with him to see “A Few Good Men.” The movie poster featured images of military personnel, so I expected it to be an action-packed war film. I was surprised it was actually a courtroom drama. I did not understand much of what was happening, but I was fascinated by the way the characters communicated with each other. That was a big moment for me.

Walking to the video store was a regular thing during my childhood and I would always have to call my parents from the checkout desk to get their permission to rent films like “Terminator 2” and “Patriot Games.” I wanted to see it all. My parents divorced when I was 7, and cinema became an escape for me. Watching films at home with my mom or dad during the respective times I spent with them was a big bonding experience in the wake of their divorce. I was lucky to see classics like “The Godfather.” By the time I was 14, I was regularly writing reviews of everything I was watching and started practicing my film criticism skills.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I learned that it is never too late to do what you truly love and learn new things. I learned the importance of making connections with your professors and fellow students, but most importantly, I learned so much regarding my passion for film studies. I learned to look at films in an even newer light and was able to strengthen my skills in reflecting on film from a critical, analytical and academic perspective.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: They offered an online program in film studies that allowed me to learn remotely, and after talking to an admissions advisor, the curriculum was exactly what I was looking for. I was intrigued by the courses offered as well as options for me to have assistance for an affordable tuition. I could not have chosen a better school to pursue my bachelor’s than ASU.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: (Associate Professor) Kevin Sandler. I first became familiar with him when he presented the online lectures for my FMS 200 Film History course. I was intrigued by the information he presented and how effective it was for my learning. It was like tuning into a TCM (Turner Classic Movies) documentary on cinema history every week. By my third semester at ASU, I noticed he was teaching a class on Francis Ford Coppola (a director whose work intrigues me) and I immediately jumped on the opportunity to take a course with him. We connected during a Zoom meeting and I expressed to him my passions for film studies, as well as my goals for the future in this field. What resulted is the best connection I could have made with any professor at ASU. He not only helped strengthen my skills and perspective on film, but he became an important mentor in my journey. I took two individualized instruction courses with him, one of which served the purpose of advising me as I wrote my graduate school admission essay. Above all, he taught me one of the most important education lessons that I hold to the highest regard ... no matter how much I've learned or how much I know about film, there is always more I can learn to become stronger in my knowledge. When I write a book or craft any project revolving around film studies, he will be thanked in the acknowledgments. I would recommend him as a professor to anyone.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Don't give up. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't ever feel like it is too late for you to pursue your passions in life. You'll face obstacles, you'll have tough moments and sometimes, you may feel overwhelmed. Trust your professors and always be willing to reach out to them for help. They are here to guide you and help you succeed. Use any and all resources available to you. Most importantly, always give your best effort.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: The library. It has become my haven for studying (as) an environment free of distractions.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to attend graduate school and pursue a master’s and doctorate in the field of film studies. I plan to continue strengthening my social media presence as a content creator and plan to write a book about cinema. My career goals are to work as a programming director for a cinema or film museum, work as a freelance film critic and pursue opportunities to teach film studies on a college level.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Poverty and equality. These are issues that genuinely affect our world, and I want others to have the opportunity to live healthy, fruitful lives. Whether it be health care, education, nutrition or employment, I want to help build a better world for everyone, regardless of gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation or race. I want everyone to have the opportunity to be educated and well nourished, as well as be able to pursue their dreams. A film I recently watched presented a quote that really impacted me: "America exists on the foundation of freedom and equality for all, and if everyone is not free or equal, then freedom has failed."

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Manager, marketing + communications, Department of English


Keeping the lights on

Electrical engineering doctoral student Mohammadamin Moradi uses deep Q-learning to find and combat power grid cybersecurity weaknesses

November 29, 2022

Electrical grids have seen many technological advancements since they began providing power in the 1880s. With computer-controlled systems common among power grids all over the world, systems can deliver power more efficiently than ever before.

However, as power grids rely more heavily on computer-based systems, there also comes increased vulnerability to cyberattacks. A well-designed cyberattack can bring a city to its knees, shutting down the electricity that keeps modern cities bustling, such as when hackers shut down a part of Ukraine’s power grid that supplied more than 230,000 people in 2015. Windmills against a blue sky ASU electrical engineering researchers Regents Professor Ying-Cheng Lai, his doctoral student Mohammadamin Moradi and Assistant Professor Yang Weng used a type of machine learning known as deep Q-learning to determine the best power grid cyberdefense strategies to counter different cyberattack types. Photo courtesy Unsplash Download Full Image

With the goal of finding a way to prevent such a destructive cyberattack from happening again, Mohammadamin Moradi, an electrical engineering doctoral student at Arizona State University, used artificial intelligence to analyze the most damaging attacks and best defenses possible. His work was guided by two faculty members in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU: Ying-Cheng Lai, a Regents Professor of electrical engineering and advisor for Moradi’s doctoral degree, and Yang Weng, an assistant professor of electrical engineering.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Israeli Ministry of Energy through the Israel-United States Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, or BIRD Foundation, to help both countries increase their cybersecurity defenses.

Moradi, Lai and Weng worked with a type of machine learning known as deep Q reinforcement learning, combined with stochastic game theory, to simulate what cyberattacks could cause the most damage to a power grid and the best countermeasures to keep the grid operating as best it can in the face of such attacks. The team’s research paper, “Defending smart electrical power grids against cyberattacks with deep Q-learning,” was recently published in PRX Energy, a highly selective and new open access journal of the American Physical Society focusing on modern energy issues.

“Power grid security has a substantial impact on Americans’ lives,” Moradi says. “Last year in Texas, there were power outages and people were freezing in winter. A well-planned, well-informed attacker can cause a lot of disasters, and we as defenders should be ready to act accordingly.”

A series of weather events caused the 2021 Texas power crisis, which left more than 4.5 million homes and businesses without power for more than two weeks. A cyberattack on the power grid has the potential to cause similar devastating effects. Moradi explored deep Q-learning in an effort to help bolster power grid cybersecurity. 

A deep dive into deep Q-learning

Deep Q-learning is a subset of Q-learning, a type of machine learning that analyzes the results of inputs and seeks to maximize the reward for an action. In conventional Q-learning, different inputs from a user are mapped to output values in a table known as the Q-table. However, there are many challenges to creating a Q-table because it requires a large amount of computation as the number of input values increases. This can cause a computer to struggle and malfunction when the number of inputs and outputs reaches a certain size, leading Moradi to explore deep Q-learning. 

A visual representation of the difference between a Q-table and deep-Q learning

This diagram shows the difference between Q-learning with a Q-table and deep Q-learning.

Deep Q-learning varies from traditional Q-learning because it doesn’t need a Q-table, decreasing the capacity needed for computing processes. Instead, deep Q-learning uses a neural network, which is a type of machine learning model, to estimate outputs, and does not require the user to make a manual input for each output.

Moradi also chose deep Q-learning because of another factor important to power grid cybersecurity: It can be used for environments where parameters are unknown, just as the optimal attack and defense strategies aren’t known by a user before running the deep Q-learning simulation.

While deep Q-learning addresses the issue of computing power needed, the algorithm model the system uses to learn also needs to be optimized to ensure the best outcome. This is how Moradi picked the idea of modeling the situation as a stochastic game.

Cyber wargames

“I had a game theory class last semester, and I thought the attacker-defender relationship could be modeled as a game where each one tries to achieve its objectives,” Moradi says.

In a two-person stochastic game, two antagonistic parties play a game with multiple stages seeking to maximize their rewards. In this case, the reward for the attacker is to cause as much damage to the power grid as possible, while the reward for the defender is to use the best strategy to minimize damage to the power grid.

“One game move is like one iteration of attacking and defending; the attacker launches an attack, and the defender figures out a way to respond,” Lai explains. “In general, the defender is not able to protect all lines simultaneously because of limited resources. This highlights the need for Q-learning because the defender should wisely select the set of lines to protect.”

Powering up power grid cyberdefense

Ultimately, Moradi’s simulation isn’t used to defend against the grid in real time. Simulating cyberattacks and cyberdefense shows power grid weaknesses and the best ways for a human operator to defend against them to minimize cyberattack damage.

The research team says they are looking to further refine their work with future simulations, taking into account factors such as limited financial and human resources for defending the power grid.

Weng, whose research focuses on power systems, machine learning and cyberphysical systems, among other areas, says he anticipates that the research can be used for real-life cybersecurity.

“Being part of this project helped me appreciate the great idea of using this model to understand a physical system theoretically using AI solutions,” he says. “This will ensure that the work will transition to the real world, which is the core reason for this research.”

TJ Triolo

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering