Aerospace engineering professor Aditi Chattopadhyay had been interested in aerospace and mechanical engineering before she even knew what those words meant. Little did she know, she would one day be awarded accolades from one of the top engineering schools in India.
The nomination came as a surprise to her, especially because the award has been bestowed on fewer than 100 Indian Institute of Technology alumni in the 62 years since the institute’s founding.
“I was very humbled to receive this award, because IIT only picks the best of the best,” she said.
Chattopadhyay grew up on the IIT campus, because her father was a professor in the agriculture engineering department. After achieving high marks on the entrance exam, she went on to get her undergrad at IIT.
“When I got into IIT, I was the only female in the department, but I got used to it,” she said.
From IIT she went straight to the Georgia Institute of Technology to attend graduate school. She was inducted into the Georgia Institute of Technology Hall of Fame and received the Outstanding Engineering Alumni Award in 1995.
John Young, who was the first person to orbit the moon during Apollo 10, was inducted that very same year.
“He took Georgia Tech’s T-shirt to space,” Chattopadhyay said.
After finishing school, she worked as a resident research scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center and held positions at summer faculty positions at the NASA Ames Research Center for three years. She joined the ASU faculty in 1990.
“My husband and I were both looking for jobs,” Chattopadhyay said. “I had several job offers, one of which came from the University of Michigan, but I decided to come to ASU, where I’ve established a pretty decent research lab.”
Chattopadhyay has published 125 archival journal papers and has more than 200 other publications including book chapters and conference papers. Her primary areas of teaching and research focus on multifunctional materials, multiscale modeling, structural health monitoring and multidisciplinary design optimization.
“In my opinion, they are all major issues in that we focus on in aerospace engineering problem that we are trying to solve because they are all components of it,” she said. “For instance, structural health monitoring means that you are trying to understand the problem in a structure.
Mechanical engineering graduate student Boonsung Koocollaborated with Chattopadhyay to examine emerging damage in fiber composites.
“I am working on smart materials which are sensitive to stress and I am studying molecule dynamics,” he said. “It is really beneficial to have her help me with research.”
Chattopadhyay said this process was almost like trying to find a diagnosis for a human illness. If there is some damage to the structure, the material itself can sense it. The research of multifunctional materials is an example of something that can be a self-solving material.
“We are also working on self-healing materials that can fix themselves if there is damage to the structure,” she said. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on it.”
She said she calls them multifunctional materials because they have the ability to play multiple roles.
Chattopadhyay said research is open-ended so pitfalls are inevitable.
“Often times a hypothesis is proven wrong so we have to go back and think about the problem again,” she said. “It is what I like to call a closed loop problem since you learn from your experiments and you go back and fix your theory which can be frustrating at times.”
Chattopadhyay has built a research lab at ASU where she hires students through personal contacts and makes sure that her students are passionate about their research.
“I enjoy working with my students, and I often have long conversations with them,” she said. “I tell them that first of all we sometimes have to agree to disagree on research and secondly if they feel that they are coming to ASU to work for me, that’s not a good day, that’s time to pause and think.”
Aerospace engineering graduate student Nithya Subramanian started working with Chattopadhyay a month ago. She said Chattopadhyay is very helpful to her.
“Whenever I talk to her, I feel like I have a clear picture of what I am supposed to be doing,” she said. “Every time I present an idea, she always shifts me in the right direction.”
Chattopadhyay said her students were like family to her.
“I have one son of my own, but I feel that I have 10 here at ASU,” she said. “Several of my students are married with kids, so I have grandkids as well.”
Mechanical engineering graduate student Luke Borkwoski has been working with Chattopadhyay for two and a half years. He believes that he is especially helpful with guiding their overarching goal of their research topics.
“She knows the field really well, and she knows what the government agencies as well as industry partners,” he said. “She also pays close attention to where the future will lie and what employers will be interested in.”
Chattopadhyay’s students are exposed to many employers at conferences when they present their research which makes them very marketable.
Mechanical engineering graduate students Joel Johnston and Rajesh Kumar Neerukatti recently have been accepted into the PHM Doctoral Consortium. It is very rare from two people from the same group to be going.
The Doctoral Consortium offers an opportunity for graduate students to present their research interests and plans at a determinative phase of their findings. Students will receive guidance from a panel of researchers and feedback from fellow students.
“I’m sure all of us have gotten scholarships because of her,” Johnston said.
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