By Mary Riker
Three new assistant professors in the civil and environmental engineering department are focusing their energy and resources on studying a range of sustainable materials and processes. They serve as role models for young women in engineering and inspire their students to engage in their classes.
Within the last several years, three new assistant professors have joined the department of civil and environmental engineering. All three are women in engineering pushing into new frontiers in regard to science, sustainability, and the environment. Each truly enjoys working with students and colleagues on campus and teaching the next generation of engineers.
Dr. Mohan Qin, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, first became interested in her field after taking an introductory engineering course as an undergraduate student at Shandong University in China. She enjoyed the concepts presented in the class, which allowed her to connect environmental engineering to her other courses. She then went on to earn her master’s from Peking University, also in environmental engineering, and her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech., in civil engineering.
Dr. Qin’s research focuses on resource recovery from agricultural wastewater, specifically recovering ammonia from manure. Ammonia in manure can form nitrate, which contributes to climate problems such as acid rain. Her lab combines biological processes with electrochemical systems to remove ammonia from wastewater. Such systems bypass the standard industrial and energy intensive Haber-Bosch process for creating nitrogen-based fertilizer.
Dr. Qin highlighted the importance of teamwork in her research, especially between undergraduates, PhD students, and herself. She believes she can learn from all the students in her lab and says that working with students is the best part of her job. Since being hired in January, 2020, Dr. Qin has taught mostly online, which she describes as the most difficult part of being a professor. “Teaching online requires us to think one more step ahead and recognize that everyone is more stressed,” Qin says. Despite these obstacles, Dr. Qin is looking forward to a return to normal classes and interaction with students next semester.
Dr. Pavana Prabhakar is an assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department with affiliate appointments in the engineering physics and material science departments. She always enjoyed math, physics, and mechanics in high school, and chose to study civil engineering as an undergraduate student due to its focus on structures. She earned her undergraduate degree from the National Institute of Technology in India and her master’s from the University of California-Berkeley, both in civil and environmental engineering. She researched the mechanics of lightweight composite materials for her Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan, which she earned in 2013. She then went on to a faculty position at the University of Texas at El Paso before coming to UW-Madison.
Dr. Prabhakar studies lightweight, architected polymer composites with many applications in the aerospace, marine, and automotive industries. These composites offer an alternative to traditional materials such as steel and aluminum. They are already in use in aircrafts and high-end cars, but they are often overdesigned due to their ability to fail abruptly. Dr. Prabhakar’s research focuses on how, when, and why these materials fail in extreme conditions. Her lab approaches these failures from an experimental and computational point of view and also studies additive manufacturing. They study novel designs for increasing efficiency, decreasing cost, and maintaining structural integrity while keeping the material lightweight.
Dr. Prabhakar enjoys the “seamless integration of research and teaching” at UW-Madison and says that one of the best parts of being a professor is watching students’ evolution over time. She recognizes that “no one size fits all” in regard to teaching and balances her mentoring style for different situations. She “wants to make sure it is exciting” and believes that keeping all her students invested in the required class she teaches, Structural Analysis I, is the best way to ensure their success.
Dr. Andrea Hicks is an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering and the interim Director of Sustainability Education and Research for the Office of Sustainability. She became interested in environmental impacts while attending Michigan Technological University, which led her to an undergraduate degree in environmental engineering. She studied the environmental impacts of small water treatment plants for her master’s in environmental engineering from Clemson University and went on to earn her Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She then began studying nanomaterials while working as a postdoctoral supported by funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Dr. Hicks’s research focuses on sustainability and emerging technology, including nanomaterials, aquaponics, electric bicycles, COVID-19 PPE, and more. Her lab asks the question “should we be doing this?” from an environmental, economic, and societal point of view and looks at large problems faced by society. Her research combines theoretical and practical approaches to understand the impacts of human behavior from new technology and how that behavior may differ from what is expected during the engineering design process. She says her lab “wants to ask interesting questions going forward about sustainability,” especially on a large scale.
For Dr. Hicks, one of the best parts of being a professor is her interaction with students, both the undergraduates she teaches and the graduate students in her lab. She “misses seeing students in office hours and talking about tangentially related topics” from class. She recognizes teaching as a way to “mold her future colleagues” in engineering and sustainability and recognizes the importance of the opportunity. She also sees the passion many of her students and alumni carry for UW-Madison, the College of Engineering, and their disciplines. She recalls the respect her late father-in-law Spencer Hicks, a 1986 UW-Madison graduate of the electrical and computer engineering program and long-time supporter of the magazine, had for the university, its students, and the research done here.
All three professors value the kindness and collaboration present at UW-Madison. They find working with students to be a gratifying experience and recognize the difficulties students continue to face during the pandemic. When asked for advice for young women and other minority engineering students, they overwhelmingly said “you belong here.” “Girls can do everything,” Qin says. They remind these students to be brave, have confidence, and not let anyone put them in a predetermined box. As Dr. Hicks put it: “if you keep solving problems the same way with the same group of people, you will get the same solutions.” Adding different perspectives from women and other minority groups in engineering will encourage new solutions and ultimately make the world a better place.