CEM professor honored with Usibelli Distinguished Teaching Award

Debendra Das

Mechanical engineering professor Debendra Das is no stranger to professional awards and honors (his resume reveals 44 years' worth of accolades), but his most recent honor-the 2012 Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching Award- stands out.

"It is one of the most valuable, one of the high points among those in my career, and will be very cherished," Das said of the honor he received from the University of Alaska in May.

The Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching Research and Service awards have been presented annually since 1992 to individuals who display extraordinary excellence in teaching, research and public service. Das has clearly earned the honor during his tenure at UAF, but his outlook in regard to his work in the classroom remains humble.

"My role is to prepare our students as best as I can for their future work. I am helping to build a solid foundation in engineering so when they go out and work they have that solid, basic knowledge base to guide them," Das explained. "I am there to give them confidence."

It seems to be working: During his 28 years at UAF Das has received feedback from industry representatives regarding his students who have advanced into the mechanical engineering workforce. They are succeeding, and have knowledge and skills comparable to much larger universities around the country.

Das' own career has involved constant growth, building upon an academic and research foundation. He moved to the U.S. after earning his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering at Sambalpur University in India in 1972. His master's degree came from Brown University in Rhode Island (1974) and his PhD from the University of Rhode Island (1983). He felt drawn to teaching while working in the classroom as part of his doctoral duties at University of Rhode Island-"that cemented the thought that I'd like to be a teacher," he said- but he first spent time building his knowledge foundation in industry and research. He worked as an engineer for BIF, a Unit of General Signal in Rhode Island and the Naval Surface Weapons Center in Virginia before seeking an academic position.

His past experience and research involvement are vital in his approach to teaching.

"I have found that teaching and research complement each other. The research keeps us interested and in touch with new technology," Das said. "If we don't have new things to learn we will lose interest. We need to bring new ideas and concepts into the classroom."

Das embraced his academic calling in 1984 when he was hired as assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UAF. He was chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering from 1997-1998 and 2006-2007. He's led many courses in mechanical engineering, focusing most on fluid mechanics and heat transfer.

Asked about the biggest challenges in his career, Das noted the continual challenge faced by all research faculty: Securing funding for research and graduate student support. His time in the classroom, he noted, is the comparatively easy part.

"For teaching, there is absolutely no challenge or difficulty. If you put your heart and soul in it you can fulfill the demands of teaching," he said. "The challenge has been the research, which enriches the teaching by giving new technology and concepts. The hardship these 28 years has always been finding funding to support graduate students."

Throughout his career, Das has made the transformation from a junior faculty seeking guidance from senior colleagues to a seasoned mentor himself. Now contemplating retirement, he reflected on his time in academics.

"I love to interact with the students. I try to keep an open mind because we're really all in it together," he said. "We're discovering something new together. I'm not the supreme person; it is a two-way interaction and we're learning together."

In the future, Das plans to devote more time to his community service callings-he has volunteered for numerous causes over the years, most notably with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He is not ready to leave his students just yet, however.

"I am advising four PhD students right now, and I really try to keep an open door policy," he said. "I remember how I felt back then, and I don't want them to feel lost in this work. Working with them as they navigate (doctoral studies) is my greatest pleasure."