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Prabhat Hajela: Elevating the Undergraduate Experience

Prabhat Hajela

Photo by Mark McCarty

Prabhat Hajela has spent his entire career aiming high. Trained as an aeronautical, aerospace, and mechanical engineer, he’s spent time in Washington, working with Congress to develop public policy on aerospace issues like the commercialization of space travel. He’s also conducted research at U.S. Air Force labs and at two NASA centers. As vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at Rensselaer, Hajela has set his sights on giving undergraduate students the tools needed to reach for the stars.

“Rensselaer will be defined by its level of exciting undergraduate education and by the undergraduate experience,” says Hajela. Sitting in his office in the Walker Laboratory, Hajela’s enthusiasm for the Undergraduate Plan— the next major initiative of The Rensselaer Plan — is contagious.

Calling for a renewed focus on the overall undergraduate experience, the initiative seeks to raise the level of academics, research, and international study opportunities available to undergraduate students, while boosting the student life experience.

“What makes a university great are its new discoveries,” says Hajela, who is working toward the initiative’s five-year goal of tripling the number of undergraduate students actively involved in research activities with faculty and graduate students. “Our undergraduate students are remarkable, and it’s important for us to engage them in the research and discovery process early. We should be getting them interested in independent inquiry now.”

Hajela, who also has worked with government officials in Washington to regulate Internet privacy and the control of unsolicited e-mail, conducts research focused on the analysis and optimization of structural and multidisciplinary systems through the development of innovative computational techniques. He has published extensively in the area of design methods that derive from the evolution process or mimic the behavior of a biological immune system.

In order to foster strong relationships between students and faculty, Hajela is working to develop living and learning communities for undergraduate students who share common intellectual interests. He hopes this will provide them with the opportunity to develop close mentoring relationships and lasting contacts with faculty, staff, and graduate students in their field.

Working to expand undergraduate academic programs in each of the five schools on campus, Hajela says he is committed to increasing the number of courses that are taught in Rensselaer’s innovative studio format, and he encourages the development of new programs for undergraduate students.

“The Foundations of Engineering program, the Product Design & Innovation program, and the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences major are prime examples of new, exciting course offerings. Programs like these point to a new vibrancy in undergraduate education, and to the changing face of Rensselaer,” says Hajela.

In the future Hajela would like to create an Honors College at Rensselaer — a special approach to recognize and reward undergraduate students for their academic and research accomplishments. Students admitted to the Honors College would have the opportunity to participate in a multidisciplinary seminar series, develop a thesis derived from their individual research, and earn diplomas marked with a special distinction.

The new opportunities on the horizon for Rensselaer’s undergraduate students are steps toward achieving Hajela’s overarching goal, “to revitalize and reposition undergraduate education.”

“Rensselaer is up there in terms of top college choices for very bright young students,” says Hajela. “I want prospective students to look at all of the unique opportunities we offer undergraduate students, and get excited. I want them to have a ‘Wow, I could do that at Rensselaer’ moment.”

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Milestones

Alhussein Abouzeid * Alhussein Abouzeid, assistant professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, has been awarded a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Abouzeid will use the projected five-year, $400,000 grant to investigate dynamic wireless networks with applications in environmental sensing, disaster response, and connecting homes within a community.
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Gerald Friedman, professor emeritus of earth and environmental sciences, was awarded the 2005 Legendary Geoscientist Award by the American Geological Institute and the 2005 Mary C. Rabbit Memorial Medal by the Geological Society of America. Friedman is best known for his work in carbonate rocks and is also accomplished in coastal geology and water geochemistry.
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Omkaram “Om” Nalamasu, vice president for research, has been honored with the Pride of India Gold award. Presented by the NRI Institute, the award recognizes nonresident Indians (NRIs) for outstanding achievements in their fields and for contributions toward the economic development of India and the country of their adoption.
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Linda Layne Linda Layne, the Alma and H. Erwin Hale ’30 Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, has won a Gracie Allen Award for her TV series, Motherhood Lost: Conversations. Presented by American Women in Radio & Television — a national organization dedicated to advancing the impact of women in the electronic media — the Gracie Awards strive to encourage the realistic and faceted portrayal of women in entertainment, commercials, news, features, and other programs.
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Robert Block, director of the Gaerttner Linear Accelerator Laboratory and professor emeritus of nuclear engineering, has been awarded the Seaborg Medal by the American Nuclear Society. The award recognizes an individual who has made outstanding scientific or engineering research contributions to the development of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
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William Edelstein, visiting scientist at Rensselaer, has been named the winner of the 2005-2006 American Institute of Physics Industrial Applications in Physics Prize. Edelstein was chosen “for his pioneering developments leading to commercialization of high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for medical applications.”
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Joe Chow Joe Chow, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, has been appointed associate dean of engineering for research and graduate programs. In his new role, Chow will be actively involved in prioritizing the school’s resources to support research and new initiatives, linking teaching and research more closely by integrating research into the curriculum.
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Bruce Watson, Institute Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has been appointed scientific editor for Elements, an international magazine covering mineralogy, geochemisty, and petrology research and news. He will be the chief editor for the October and December 2006 issues of the publication.
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Robert Chernow Robert Chernow has been appointed to the newly created position of vice provost for entrepreneurship at Rensselaer. Chernow will lead Rensselaer’s efforts to infuse the study, research, and practice of entrepreneurship across the curriculum, with an emphasis on educational programs. Chernow is founder and president of Educational Services for Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit organization assisting universities in shaping their entrepreneurship initiatives. He earned a B.A. in economics from Colgate University and an M.P.H. in health care management from the University of California, Berkeley.
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Robert Krull, professor of language, literature, and communication, has been named associate fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). The rank of associate fellow is conferred upon a senior member of STC who has attained distinction in the field of technical communication. Krull will receive this award at the STC convention in Las Vegas, Nev., in May.
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Michael Hanna Michael Hanna, associate professor of biology, has been appointed associate dean for academic advising, assessment, and special programs at Rensselaer. He will also serve as the director of the Institute’s Advising and Learning Assistance Center. Hanna will work with Rensselaer’s five schools, the Joint Student/Faculty Senate Committee on Advising, and various campus constituents to further develop advising and mentoring approaches to aid undergraduate students. He also will work with the Office of Undergraduate Education in key areas and initiatives defined in the Undergraduate Plan.
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Kim Fortun and Michael Fortun, both associate professors of science and technology studies, will serve jointly as editors for four volumes (16 issues) of the journal Cultural Anthropology from 2007 through 2010. The journal, which is devoted to the study of culture as it is developing in anthropology and all other relevant disciplines, is published quarterly by the Society for Cultural Anthropology.
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Douglas Cumming Douglas Cumming has been named director of the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship at the Lally School of Management and Technology. A distinguished researcher in the area of venture capital, private equity, and IPOs, Cumming focuses his work on the law and finance of entrepreneurship in the United States, Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific region. Prior to joining Rensselaer, Cumming was associate professor of finance at the University of New South Wales School of Banking and Finance in Sydney, Australia, and he has held visiting professorships at three universities in Europe (Cambridge, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt). Cumming is affiliated with Venture Capital Experts, a leading Web resource for venture capitalists, lawyers, and academics.
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Heidi Newberg Heidi Newberg, associate professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy, received the Martin and Beate Block Winter Fund Award at the Aspen Center Winter Conference “Particle Physics at the Verge of Discovery” Feb. 12-18, 2006.
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Achille Messac Achille Messac, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, has been appointed the featured area editor for “Mechanical Engineering” for the Springer journal Optimization and Engineering. Messac has served on the editorial board of this journal since 1999.
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John Koller, professor of philosophy, was named editor of The American Philosophical Newsletter for Asian and Asian-American philosophers. He was also recently named to the list of Leading Philosophers of the World, published by the World Philosophy Congress.
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