Dr. S. "Bala" Balachandar
Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
2019-2020 Faculty Doctoral Mentoring Award
Each day, what better to do than immerse in scientific discussions and work towards solving technological problems of societal importance together with outstanding young minds, mentoring them and in the process mentored by them? I am most thankful that as professors we get paid to do things that we enjoy the most.
My experience as a teacher and a mentor started at high school when I started helping my younger sibling and her friends in math and science. This fledgling passion for teaching was reinforced when I served as a teaching assistant during my PhD at Brown University, conducting fluid mechanics experiments for undergraduate students. These early experiences led me to the key realization that teaching is the only way to life-long learning. I decided teaching/research career to be my calling and gave up better paying industrial jobs to pursue my academic dream.
My teaching philosophy has been "Challenge the top while raising the bottom". With increasing class size and class diversity, the biggest change a teacher faces is the large spread in the intellectual ability, motivation and learning skills of the students. In each course I teach, I hold a minimum standard of fundamental knowledge and techniques for all the students to rise above, while at the same time present challenging concepts to engage the best and the brightest. I employ this guiding principle in designing my lectures, examples, home works and exams.
While enabling the educational progress of an entire spectrum of students through classroom teaching has been immensely rewarding, the pleasures of doctoral advising and mentoring are even stronger since we are given the opportunity to engage the crème de la crème. Towards this end, I have placed particular emphasis on attracting nothing but the most outstanding graduate students to my research group. Aggressive recruitment is the key to success in this very competitive market.
Once a graduate student enters my research group I give her/him all the support and freedom needed to flourish to their fullest potential. I support all my graduate students with research assistantship throughout their doctoral research, so securing funding for the next semester is not an issue for them to worry about. The only requirement I challenge them with is to demand that they become a true leader in their chosen area of research, gain absolute mastery over the subject and produce a world-class dissertation. This insistence on excellence is never direct – each new graduate student to the group quickly learns what is expected of her/him from the senior students who are about to graduate. I was fortunate to have a string of outstanding graduate students at the beginning of my career and they have set the tradition in motion.
In my research group, the time to defend the thesis and graduate is dictated neither by the number of years pursuing PhD under my supervision nor by reaching a pre-set quota of archival publications. The only criterion is an outstanding thesis that the student is supremely confident to defend before a committee of experts. In the beginning, every graduate student is typically timid and understandably look to my guidance and input as to what research steps to pursue. In the course of a few years, an amazing transformation takes place. When they are close to graduation, it has been my pleasant experience that every student gains total command of her/his research and begins to recommend what the next steps ought to be. This magical transformation is the sign I look for in deciding their readiness to graduate. This criterion has worked effectively over the years. Almost all my students have graduated between four to five years after joining my group. Their dissertations have typically resulted in four or more peer-reviewed journal publications in the best journals in our field. All my PhD students have gone on to pursue very successful careers in academia, research institutions, and industry.
Since the turn of the century, the field of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering has been at a critical turning point. Following the footsteps of Electrical Engineering and Material Science, Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering has steadily integrated fundamental physical, chemical and biological sciences into its fold and emerging as a science-based engineering discipline. In addition to the traditional focus on areas such as turbomachinery and manufacturing, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineers are increasingly engaged in emerging areas of nanotechnology, deep learning, and nature-inspired design. I have encouraged all my PhD students to fully embrace science-based interdisciplinary research by seeking expertise beyond what I could provide, by interacting with geophysicists, applied mathematicians, statistical physicists, and computer scientists, as appropriate. This has allowed my students to pioneer innovations that are simply impossible with only my advice. In the process, my PhD students have educated me on many new things. Also, the multidisciplinary innovations of my students have been greatly appreciated in the community.
I consider my role as an adviser/mentor to be not limited to the doctoral dissertation but extend to their career and long-term success in a holistic manner. Over my academic career, I have graduated 46 PhD students and mentored 34 Postdocs/Research Scientists. 20 of them have become professors at prestigious universities both in the US (Johns Hopkins University, Texas A&M, LSU, University of Alabama, Rutgers, University of Washington) and abroad (ETH Zurich, Institut National Polytechnique de Toulouse, Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, and Pusan National University). Others have found successful careers at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, Argonne National Labs, Naval Surface Warfare Center – Indian Head, Air Force Research Laboratory, ExxonMobil, Raytheon, etc. Their success is mainly due to their excellence, utter dedication, and hard work. My minimal contribution typically is to financially support them even after graduation till they find their perfect employment and provide guidance in their decision- making process.
Professional success depends not only on technical excellence and hard work, but equally important are people skills, teamwork, and networking abilities. I have arranged for internships and extended visits of my graduate students to national labs, naval research centers, and industry (Exxon), where they have later found employment. Over the years, my research group has hosted over 32 internationally-recognized scholars as sabbatical and other long terms visitors – this has allowed meaningful interactions of my students with world-class excellence. I have also encouraged and supported all my students to attend at least one or two conferences each year in their field. Also, over the past six years, we have organized 8 focused workshops and deep-dives at UF mainly to the benefit of our graduate students. These focused gathering of experts have proven to be the most effective mechanism of exciting our graduate students, instill great pride in their accomplishments and properly place their work in a broader context.
Both UF and the University of Illinois have been outstanding institutions that have allowed me to attract stellar graduate students. I make every effort to promote my students and have their accomplishments recognized and rewarded. Several of my students have therefore won prestigious awards as part of their doctoral dissertation both at the national and at the university level. For example, (i) Rajat Mittal received the François Frenkiel Award for the best paper published in Physics of Fluids, (ii) Prosenjit Bagchi received the Andreas Acrivos Award for the best PhD Dissertation in the Nation from the American Physical Society, Division of Fluid Dynamics, (iii) Manoj Parmar, Nadim Zgheib and Georges Akiki won the Best Thesis Award in the MAE Department in 2010, 2015 and 2017, (iv) Mariano Cantero won the Lorenz G. Straub Best Thesis Award nationwide in hydraulics research, (v) Nadim Zgheib won the Chateaubriand Fellowship from the French Government, (vi) Four of my students received the prestigious NSF Graduate Fellowship.