At NJIT, Atam Dhawan is a distinguished professor and associate dean of the honors college
"This is the environment I wanted," he says. "It's rich with innovation and research but goes beyond the classroom and the research lab and culminates in next-generation technologies that will impact society."
"With the support of my colleagues I am helping our school get to where MIT and Stanford are now."
By Kate Colborn
Editor in chief
Atam Dhawan is a distinguished professor of EE and CE at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT, Newark, NJ), and associate dean of The Albert Dorman Honors College at the school. His work there includes a post on the multimedia editorial board for the honors college.
His story starts when he was a precocious kid in India.
"I did not have an academic role model in my family," he says. "My father was a businessman."
And when his father asked him to join the business, "I told him I wanted to keep studying," Dhawan says. "He agreed because he knew the importance of education and always encouraged me to make sure I went as far as I could."
Dhawan told his father that he wanted to become a scientist. "I had read about Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, the physicist from Bangalore, India who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his contributions in spectroscopy, and without knowing any more about him I took him for my role model!"
Exponentially growing interest
Dhawan read everything he could about physics. "By the time I was in high school I was reading graduate-level books on atomic spectroscopy. I was fascinated at the molecular level and wanted to go to engineering school. My father said 'All right, but just make sure you are at the top of the list every term!'
"His words still resonate in my life," Dhawan says. "They come back to me every time I come on a difficult situation."
So he journeyed to Agra, the biggest nearby city, to take the six three-hour tests that make up the entrance exam for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), one of the most important universities in India.
"I have heard that getting into IIT in India is harder than getting into MIT in the U.S.," Dhawan recalls. "That summer, in the middle of a heat wave, about 27,000 students took the exam for IIT, and less than one percent of them were admitted." Dhawan was part of that one percent.
IIT is the oldest university in southeast Asia. "When I'd been there a month my father came to be sure I was OK, and saw in his heart that I had made the right choice," Dhawan recalls fondly.
His interest in physics and biology kept on growing. When he finished his senior design project on digital electronics it was considered the best project for that year.
"In school I worked as a research assistant on a contract with a major EE company in India," he says. "With that experience four friends and I decided to start our own company. We were all not quite twenty. In India you couldn't think of a bank giving you a big loan. So like typical teenagers we went to our parents for money.
"My father wanted to know how I knew I would be a success, and I said, 'I don't, but I know I can design the digital system and make the prototype and the other guys will market it.' He asked if I knew anything about marketing and I said, 'I don't have to, I am the idea guy.'
"I don't know why, but he gave me 5,000 rupees in cash, and I told him, 'You are making a great investment, I will quadruple this in three years and bring it back to you,' and he said, 'The experience you are going to get will be worth a lot more than 5,000 rupees.'"
Beginning the business
So the four young engineers started out. They rented two rooms and slept on the floor in one of them, while the other was the office and factory. They developed a digital temperature and pressure controller.
"We were completely na´ve, completely stupid, with no sense of marketing or accounting or financing," Dhawan admits. "While waiting for something to happen I entered a masters program, which turned out to be a very good thing for me."
A very brief launch
From there Dhawan's story becomes a sad early-learning experience. The young men submitted the lowest bid for their first project, "mainly because we didn't know how to price it," and they got the contract. Only then did they understand that they had to submit five prototypes for testing before they had any hope of getting some money back.
The young partners discovered that they should have doubled their bid price to make any profit at all. "So after six or eight months of working sixteen-hour days and sleeping on the floor, we came out of that situation with no money and no hope of getting any.
"All of sudden I realized what my father had meant about a learning experience. And one day I walked out of the room and took a train to my hometown and went to my father with tears in my eyes."
Fortunately Dhawan had his grad school work to focus on, and in his first year a research paper he authored was accepted by an IEEE international conference on circuits and systems. It was the first time a student paper from his school had ever been accepted. When the session was over a professor he met there took him to Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA) and introduced him around. He was, in fact, offered a post at Stanford, but he had promised to go back to India to grad school.
Dhawan's MS thesis was the first his college had ever seen on microprocessor-based systems, so he had plenty of job offers. He joined the faculty of the IndoGerman institute, and "My father was very happy," he says.
But Dhawan was not happy. "Within six months I realized the blunder I had made not going with Stanford, and started thinking about how to get back into research."
The opportunity soon arose. Mitsubishi was opening a microprocessor division near New Delhi, and a technical advisor for the company made Dhawan an offer. "The next day I was in charge of fifteen engineers, all older than me." It seems the new company had received a big contract from a major manufacturing company in India and Dhawan was to design the necessary microcomputer. He was twenty-three years old.
Education is a noble profession
Reason for pride, surely, but Dhawan's father was strangely disappointed. "He said, 'You got your education, and if you are teaching you are moving it forward," Dhawan remembers. "That was when I realized I must get a PhD and become a university professor."
He saw an advertisement soliciting applications for the Commonwealth Fellowship, said to be tougher to get than the U.S. Fulbright. Just one was available for engineering students in India.
"I cut out the article and put it under my pillow and looked at it every night," Dhawan confides. "Finally, when the deadline was the next day, I felt I just had to apply for it. I got to the office one hour before closing and submitted the application."
The Dhawan luck held. He was selected for a final interview with a Commonwealth committee, and told them he wanted to go to the University of Manitoba in Canada and work with Dr Richard Gordon, a pioneer in X-ray computer tomography. The young scholar from India landed in Manitoba on December 26th with three feet of snow on the ground.
Putting the dream together
He's worked in North America ever since. He started working on his PhD in EE. Dr Gordon, his advisor and mentor, was a professor of radiology, and his lab concentrated on morphology in the U Manitoba health sciences center.
But Dhawan spent most of his time in the hospital center. And when he finished his coursework he moved to the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY) to spend a semester learning laser optics.
Then he started work on a new medical imaging modality that he called "trans-illumination imaging," a combination of microscopy and spectroscopy. His advisor introduced him to problems of accurate screening for skin cancer and "All of a sudden I was in an MD/PhD program."
Soon he was publishing in top journals. He finished the PhD in two years. "Now I could realize my dream and bring biology, math and engineering together," he says.
"My advisor suggested that I go on for an MD, so I asked my wife's advice, and she said, 'Here is where we draw the line!' We had a new baby, just two months old, and she thought it was time for me to have a regular job!"
Dhawan took his wife's advice. He joined the faculty of the University of Houston (Houston, TX), and a few years later moved to the University of Cincinnati, OH.
But he still wanted to do research, and to get his students doing worthwhile research, too. "I had students working with me, but they were not being prepared to see the interdisciplinary nature of research: the college of engineering working with the college of medicine, for example."
So he invited the heads of both departments to dinner and proposed funding joint grad-student teams from medicine and engineering.
"To my surprise they miraculously both agreed and before I knew it I was heading up the new collaborative program in EE and radiology, and this is how I got into administration!"
Today the idea of interdisciplinary work is very popular, but then not so much. Nevertheless, Dhawan got the program off the ground; three grants were funded by NIH and the faculty and courses were streamlined. Dhawan moved up to associate chair in the graduate program, and "The students started telling me what a difference all this made in their lives."
Back to teaching
But Dhawan was still thinking about his father's advice to stay in teaching. "Research was a great pathway for me but now I was starting to see beyond the research," he says. He successfully transferred his trans-illumination technology for skin-cancer screening to Translite LLC (Houston, TX), and recognized that it was important for students to learn about entrepreneurship and the "roadmap to the business world."
"I started thinking about bringing leaders from the real world into the classroom to help the students understand what work society needs done," he says.
On to the honors college
And that, says Dhawan, "is why I am where I am, here at NJIT. I came to the honors college here because these students are talented and have great opportunities to move forward. I want to be sure they understand what society needs and what it means to create a pathway. It does not stop at innovation; it goes through marketing and technology transfer, and they can't learn that from Newton's second law!"
That enthusiasm has led to the recent creation of an "Interdisciplinary Design Studio" at NJIT, where undergraduate students from different majors can pursue research, design and product development along with business development and entrepreneurship, and network with real-world entrepreneurs and industrialists.
His eleven years at NJIT are the longest Dhawan has ever been at one school; intentionally so. "This is the environment I wanted," he says, "rich with innovation and research but going beyond the classroom and the research lab, and culminating in next-generation technologies that will impact society."
This, he insists, is no coincidence. "If you look at MIT or Stanford you see the cluster of entrepreneurs around, with government helping to support them and society building around them, and with responsibility to develop a vision and understanding of diversity.
"This is where the Albert Dorman Honors College is going, and my move to NJIT and taking on responsibility for the honors college reinforces that. With the support of my colleagues I am helping our school get to where MIT and Stanford are now."
Plus his own work
In the midst of all this activity Dhawan hasn't given up his own work. Right now he's concentrating on the very different areas of skin cancer, in medicine, and security, in cybercommunication.
Besides, "I like to spend time networking with people from the corporate sector and leading research institutions," he says. That's one reason why he chairs the chartered NIH study section on biomedical computing and health informatics: "This way I can contribute a little to steering the research direction," he notes.
Credit to the family
After his father, Dhawan gives credit for his accomplishments to his wife. "Without her support I would not have been able to do half of what I did," he says. "The books I have written were all written at night, sitting at the kitchen table. And I credit my kids with properly appreciating the quality time I have been able to spend with them."
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