Meet An Outstanding Graduate Student

Priya Radhi Santhanam was recently named NCE's Outstanding Graduate Student.

Priya Radhi Santhanam is outstanding. 

Or at least she is in the eye of the Newark College of Engineering (NCE), which recently named her its Outstanding Graduate Student of the year. 

What is it about Priya, who is doing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, that’s outstanding?

For one, she’s a great student, with a 3.9 GPA.  She’s also a talented researcher who has published three papers in prominent journals and presented her research at 11 academic conferences, where she has won best presentation awards from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Other accolades she’s won include the NJIT Constance Murray Scholarship for Outstanding Graduate Women Student, an NJIT Provost Fellowship and a Minerals, Metals and Materials Society Student Travel Grant.

But she also excels socially. As president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) graduate section at NJIT, Priya helps women study engineering. The society was so impressed with her work that this year it awarded her the SWE Outstanding Service Award.  The National Society of Women Engineers also this year appointed her to its Graduate Task Force Committee. That means she’ll help formulate SWE policy that affects women graduate students across the country.

And this summer, Priya will get her first work experience in America. She’ll intern at Exxon Mobil’s Upstream Research Company, a research and development division. Exxon only picks top students for that internship.  She’s excited about seeing how a major corporation does research, especially since her research experience has mostly been in academia. 

Even with all these honors, Priya doesn’t see herself as outstanding.  She sees herself simply as someone who has just always loved to learn.  “Ever since I can remember I always loved school,” she says. “Perhaps that’s why after I get my Ph.D. I want to be a professor.”

And the professor she hopes to emulate is Edward Dreizin, a professor of chemical engineering who is her doctoral adviser.  Dreizin is a leading researcher in his field, says Priya, but he always finds time to guide the graduate students who work in his lab. He listens closely and finds ways to motivate students and unleash their creativity, she adds.

“Everything I’ve learned about research I’ve learned from Professor Dreizin,” she says. “I take inspiration from him and hope to eventually do what he does: teach at a major research university and do important research.”

The research Priya is doing now with Dreizin is indeed important. She’s designing a computational model for a manufacturing process known as mechanical milling. The process has been used to make new alloys and composites and those materials have many applications, from structural materials and heat-transfer materials, to creating new catalysts and better rocket fuel.

But there’s one obstacle in that manufacturing process that Priya’s research seeks to overcome:  Many of the new alloys and composites have been made by researchers but not commercialized.  It’s much easier to make small-scale material samples in labs than it is to make them on large-scale industrial equipment. Priya's computational model, though, could allow for the mass production of the new materials by predicting the right large-scale manufacturing conditions as well as the right ingredients of the powders used to make the materials. 

“I think her research will have wide-ranging applications in the pharmaceutical, chemical, energy and food industries,” says Dreizin. “Priya is a very intelligent student who has what it takes to be a great researcher and educator.”

Priya took a chance in coming to NJIT. She’s an only child who is close to her parents. But when she told them she wanted to leave India to come to NJIIT for her master’s degree, her parents agreed.  It was her first time in America. She moved into an apartment in nearby Harrison with other Indian graduate students, some of whom she knew from her undergraduate college in India.  She soon realized that NJIT was a great choice -- that it was a top university filled with diverse students and professors who were open, friendly yet hard-working.  And she liked grad school so much that after her master’s degree she stayed on for her Ph.D. She’s now about half way through the doctoral program in chemical engineering. 

Priya, though, thinks it’s important for graduate students to get involved in more than just their studies and their research. Graduate students need also to possess social and personal skills.  And they need to enjoy their time at the university. They must also be able to explain their research in simple and clear terms to the public. They can acquire these skills by joining on-campus groups and clubs, she says.  That’s why she first joined SWE, which helped her grow socially while also giving her the unparalleled joy of helping others.  Ever since she was a girl, she knew she wanted to be an engineer, so it’s a pleasure for her to help other women find an avenue to engineering.

“NJIT has given me so much that I wanted to give something back to the university,” says Priya. “My work with the Society of Women Engineers has allowed me to do that.  Any woman who is thinking of studying engineering at NJIT, either as an undergrad or as a grad student, should now that they will be welcomed with open arms by the women  in SWE and be supported in all their efforts to become engineers.”

By Robert Florida