She compares her job to a stage performance: Capturing the audience, inspiring their imaginations, putting in a bit of sparkle so they will share her vision. Like a performer, she will travel thousands of miles and entertain many audiences before the year is over. Like a great actor, she will smile through life's challenges, including removing her shoes through one more airport security check.
"I would like to have been an actor! Most of the time, teaching is acting," says SLAS Member and 2007 ALA Innovation Award Finalist Shalini Prasad, Ph.D. "I am a one-woman show when you think about it. I have to keep the audience interested. Undergraduate audiences are the toughest you can have because you can lose them so easily."
Acting aside, Prasad is an associate professor in bioengineering at University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas), where she is also director of the Biomedical Microdevices and Nanotechnology Laboratory. In addition to teaching graduate courses in nanotechnology and sensors and biomedical microdevices, she conducts and manages multidisciplinary research in the areas of bioengineering and nanotechnology.
Prasad is pursuing her career interests as fast as an airline flight will carry her. By the time 2011 draws to a close, she will have logged more than 250 hours of flight time in the four months she has traveled between her home base in Arizona and her current post at UT Dallas. These hours represent a reduction in her travel schedule. Her previous commute to and from Wichita State University was seven and a half hours door-to-door. Now she has just a mere jaunt of three.
Physics, chemistry, electrical and chemical engineering and material science, all play a role in Prasad's lecture topics. "When we are talking about new ideas or emerging technologies, as nanotechnology is, it is difficult because you have to teach multiple disciplines. You have to teach enough to create an umbrella and then a bridge to the point," Prasad explains.
"It's tough because although all the students have diverse backgrounds, you have to get them to understand a lot in a short duration of time," she continues.
Fortunately, many of her students share her inquisitive nature. "You have to have curiosity to understand, to learn new things and to open part of that knowledge to be a successful academic as a professor," says Prasad, who spends approximately 30 percent of her time teaching and the other 70 percent in the lab.
"I have tremendous respect for curiosity," she adds. So much so that she admits issues with the Indian education system in which she spent her formative years. "There has been a tremendous emphasis on rote. Success is measured by how well a person does in competitive exams, in which questions can be answered through repetitive learning. I think that is very limiting and takes away a person's ability to be creative."
Creativity plays a tremendous part in her own learning process. The inspiration for Prasad's work is not limited to engineering or science, she says, but spills over to diverse fields such as art, politics, film or whatever she is engaging in at the moment.
"Once, I was viewing an abstract painting at a museum, and it struck me that if I could replicate the profile of that painting in my device design, I would be able to achieve enhancements to my device performance," says Prasad. She describes "think time" as organic, and does not force a time to sit down and think about a research problem.
"It happens quite suddenly and most often when I am trying to understand something in a completely diverse field," she adds. New ideas emerge as she teaches a class, works in the lab, spends time exercising, Skypes home to her husband and 20-month-old son, or hops on a flight home to them.
"I believe curiosity is an important ingredient for achieving innovation," she continues. Always a very curious person, even as a child, Prasad describes a childhood fascination with the inner workings of just about everything, from simple electrical appliances to software programs.
"My parents have always encouraged and nurtured this curiosity," she adds. Her son, Aditya Karthik, or Adi, is already exhibiting some of his mother's innate curiosity.
"Our house is always a perpetual mess!" she laughs. "He is highly curious about everything. Right now, he is busy figuring out how various switches work and how to undo screws and knobs. The other day our dining room chair just kind of came apart. We figured out later that he had figured out how to use the screw driver to loosen all the screws. We had to teach him how to put it back together."
She plans to nurture and encourage these inquisitive qualities. "I would like for him to be as innovative and as creative as he can be in his profession of choice. I am going to get him to do a lot of hands-on learning, whether it is in the kitchen or in the garden. I try to get him to see cause and effect in daily life," she comments.
A cause-and-effect relationship in Prasad's life is her participation in SLAS. Because she is involved, she has connections that have enriched her career.
Her association with SLAS (then ALA) began while she was still a student at University of California Riverside. In 2002, she submitted an abstract at the urging of her advisor, who had been in contact with ALA Founder David Herold, M.D., Ph.D. "Patterned Live Neural Networks by Induced Electrical Fields for Bio-Sensing," authored by Prasad and Xuan Zhang, Mo Yang, Cengiz Ozkan and Mihrimah Ozkan, won first place in the student poster competition at the LabAutomation conference that year. Prasad proceeded to win the competition for the next two years, as well.
"Everyone started noticing after I came back for three years and won the award," she says. Herold recruited her to motivate other graduate students into the laboratory automation networking that ALA offered. She became part of the student committee and persuaded other students to participate in the poster competitions. She also shared with them the benefits of being a part of this particular event and organization.
"The SLAS conference gives students an opportunity to network with commercial companies. At the same time, you can network with the academics," Prasad explains. "It is helpful if you want to understand new protocols for your research. You meet people who are not just faculty, but other students who give you ideas."
The ready-made vehicle for networking was helpful for her as she completed her doctoral degree in three years. "My research is in biomedical engineering. My Ph.D. degree is in electrical engineering. This networking helped a lot because the research is very multi-disciplinary. In laboratory automation, you get to meet people who give you feedback on micro- and nanotechnologies," says Prasad.
Prasad's doctoral work involved interfacing biological cells with silicon microelectronics and designing sensors for them. She describes it as a very narrow space. Her first goal after she secured her first teaching position with Portland State University in 2005 was to branch out.
"I was trying to diversify my research and make it different from what I was doing in my Ph.D. I wanted to establish my independence as a researcher," she says. In addition to this, she also had to focus on the key things for success in the academic world: Bringing in grant money and attracting diverse talent into the lab.
"You can network independently, but that only takes you so far. If you really want to network on an international level, then you need to have a mechanism you can tap into. Because I was a part of ALA, now SLAS, I was able to essentially use those connections," she comments. Because she attended the lab automation conference each year, she would meet new people and build upon those relationships.
"If you already have a dialogue going via e-mail or phone, you can pick it up from there," Prasad says. She offers as an example her move from Portland to Arizona State University, Tempe (ASU), in 2008.
"It's a much bigger school. You can get lost," she explains. "You can be a drop in the ocean. You have to differentiate yourself, diversify and create your core competencies. For that to happen you have to have a mechanism (for connecting to others)." For her, it was again SLAS that filled that role.
"My career path diversified. I started doing a lot more molecular and cellular-level work from a diagnostic standpoint using micro and nanotechnologies," she explains. "I got recruited by ASU to help with the bioengineering program."
With the passing of time, Prasad found more roles with SLAS, too. She was a member of the Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA) Editorial Board and took on responsibilities with the SLAS Education Committee in not only recruiting students but also speakers for the conference.
"I could make connections at a peer and student level," she says. "I actively recruit people from all universities." About 15 to 20 people she contacts end up coming to the conference, Prasad estimates.
"Now as chair of the SLAS2012 Student Poster Competition, I get to see a lot of students and understand what they want from the conference and the organization. One, they want to network; jobs are an important part of it. Two, they want help with their research. Those things have never changed. What the organization does is make it easy. You have this virtual and physical meeting space available. It makes it easier to connect."
In 2010, Prasad found a new opportunity at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas (WSU) that offered greater independence. "I went from an assistant professor to an associate professor. I also had a lot more research responsibilities," she says. She also took on a colossal commute from Arizona to Kansas. Her husband, Sriram Muthukumar, still had a position in the semi-conducting industry in Arizona to consider. With a house to sell and another job to find, it looked as if Prasad would be racking up frequent flyer miles for a while.
"I didn't really envision having to commute," she said, noting that there were no direct flights from Phoenix to Wichita. "I had to fly through Denver or Houston. It was seven-and-a-half hours door-to-door! And I was doing it every week."
Family support and a full-time nanny make the commute possible. Both sets of grandparents help out with childcare. Each day, Prasad says, has its own problems to solve, whether that is baby-proofing the dining room, adding items to her social calendar or adjusting her commuting schedule to include her husband's work-related travel. "It's one big organically changing situation," she says. "It's a little unusual for an academic to keep moving, but I've done everything that's probably unconventional at this point!"
The position with the bioengineering program at WSU was a challenge. The new program was not near a bioengineering hub. How do you attract and retain students? How do you build collaborative associations? These were questions she faced on the new job. "So what I did was get the undergraduate students at that point – because it is an undergraduate-only program – to come to the lab automation conference," Prasad explains. The students established actual and virtual connections at the conference.
"The SLAS Member Communications Committee's Social Media Working Group," of which she is also a volunteer member," is trying to connect more people through LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites," she says. "I am hoping in the next year to connect a lot more people and get a lot more dialogues going."
Prasad appreciates the understanding and support offered to her by the SLAS community. "Over the last year, because I have this unconventional travel situation, I have made a lot of friends," she explains. "You can talk about what you are doing and hear all kinds of feedback. People tell me they had to do something similar for a few months or a few years, and they share the approach they took. It makes you happy to find people who have done this, too."
The most important advice she has received is: Try not to plan for tomorrow, just deal with today. "Deal with things you have some control over," she says. "I think of it as a daily process, otherwise the whole problem can just overwhelm you."
In August 2011, Prasad made another move, this time to the UT Dallas. She is optimistic about the move, even though she is still commuting from Arizona. Travel time is cut because of direct flights, and Texas offers greater involvement in the semi-conductor industry. Prospects for a final move look good.
Not only this, but the joint biomedical program between UT Dallas and the University of Texas Southwestern School Of Medicine is exactly where she wants to be: cancer diagnostics. Her lab at UT Dallas focuses on designing miniaturized cellular and molecular platforms for cancer diagnostics. The goal has been to build bridges with the medical school to implement rapid and affordable clinical diagnostics. She currently has eight research projects in progress in the lab.
As director of the Biomedical Microdevices and Nanotechnology Laboratory her goal is to build the lab into one that does more translation of technologies, to demonstrate commercial applicability, have greater economic impact and, most important to her, to improve the quality of human life.
"I want it to be more than a basic science lab. Yes, the science has to be good, but sometimes we have to couple it with engineering and other business processes," Prasad concludes. "I think that networking through SLAS is good because it has business people, applied scientists and basic researchers. You plug into the network, and they help you. I would like to be associated with this throughout my professional life."
November 22, 2011