Palligarnai T. Vasudevan
Graduate Faculty Mentor Award
Professor of Chemical Engineering
College of Engineering and Physical Sciences
Right: Make that playing it forward. P.T. Vasudevan plays cricket with members of the India Association of New Hampshire at Kingston State Park.
Paying it forward
At age 22, in 1975, P.T. Vasudevan took a job with the Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited. He'd earned his B.S. in chemical engineering in 1974 from the University of Madras and a diploma in biochemical engineering in 1975 from the Indian Institute of Technology at Delhi.
Within two years, he was in charge of one of the plants for one shift, supervising 35 to 40 employees whose educations ranged from the high school level to the college level with years of experience. The plant, which made 30,000 tons per year of Polypropylene, processed volatile hydrocarbons and was just 20 miles away from the city of Baroda.
"That's not too far if you have a massive leak," recalls Vasudevan in his office at UNH. He then pulls out a tattered reference book that has the properties of hydrocarbons, flow, and pressure calculations. It's the book he used when he managed the plant.
Vasudevan knows that when something does go wrong, when suddenly you're operating in the dark, and the instruments are blank, "You hope that people did the right design, and that safety valves will work." And you have to know your operating manual.
"I made sure that I learned all the tricks of the trade—how to align a pump and get my hands dirty. I listened," says Vasudevan. "I think the key thing is to treat people as colleagues, not as the boss all of the time. Running a plant like that around the clock...one mistake could endanger everyone. You all have to realize that you're part of a team."
Vasudevan's experience shaped the way he works with graduate students. He understands their need for guidance and their longing to do interesting research.
It's what brought Vasudevan to the U.S. to study for his master's degree at SUNY Buffalo and then for his Ph.D. at Clarkson University. "My adviser at Buffalo became a mentor to me," says Vasudevan, who has remained in touch with him for more than 20 years.
As a mentor himself, Vasudevan has stayed in touch with his own graduate students. In the past 19 years, he's supervised 22 graduate theses and 24 undergraduate research participants. He is also a prolific scholar, authoring more than 40 papers in professional publications.
Xiangping Shen, a master's degree student, has worked closely with Vasudevan on the development of biodiesel fuels. They plan to publish an article together. It's research that Vasudevan has concentrated on for several years.
"Yes, we are publishing a paper," Shen says. "My name will be first. Of course, I'm very happy about it. But, I actually wanted his name to be first, but he was insistent."
Alison Dupont, now a research and development engineer at a medical manufacturing company, studied with Vasudevan as an undergraduate. "At the end of my junior year, Professor Vasudevan asked me if I had considered going to graduate school." She told him she had, but didn't know if the time was right. At that point, her husband and she had a four–year old child and were planning for another. Professor Vasudevan informed her of an early enrollment option where she could take two graduate courses during her senior year.
"After walking out of his office, I went straight to the Graduate School to get an application," Dupont says.
Dupont's family eventually expanded to three children while she earned her masters degree. She plans to earn her doctorate. Says Dupont, "I once dreamed of becoming a doctor to help save lives, but I've found that I can save lives through my career as a chemical engineer."
Vasudevan recognizes that passion from his own research on biofuels. In a recent essay he concluded: "We have the potential to take the giant steps needed to make us less dependent on oil, but we must act now."