Arts & Culture 

Finding his place at NAU

CEIAS Indian Association international student mechanical engineering PhD

Mechanical Engineering PhD student Glen D’Silva’s goal is academia, allowing him to combine his interests in research and education.

Glen D’Silva has always enjoyed tinkering and figuring out how things work. When he was eight years old, he created an electromagnet by wrapping a coil around a nail. To his delight, his graduate research at Northern Arizona University brought him back to the world of magnetism and energy as he studies magnetic shape memory alloys. He also found a new interest—educating others. He now aspires to combine his two interests, research and education, and go into academia. “I really see myself wanting to become a teacher or lecturer. So, academia is where I look to go,” Glen said.

Glen is working on his PhD in Mechanical Engineering in Dr. Constantin Ciocanel’s Multifunctional Materials and Adaptive Systems Laboratory. Glen came to NAU from Mumbai, India, to complete a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. He chose NAU because he was offered a good financial package, and he appreciated the beautiful Flagstaff scenery. It helped that he had a friend who was also a student here.

Glen didn’t plan on pursuing a PhD, but his experience at NAU changed his mind. “When I came here, I thought I would probably get my master’s degree, go back home, and find a job. I never thought that I’d want to stay here,” Glen said. “But all the support that I received from NAU has been mind-blowing, whether it’s been towards my personal development, career development, or even funding—all these three—I’ve been really happy and satisfied. That’s why I didn’t even have to think twice that I wanted to stay here for my PhD.”

When I came here, I thought I would probably get my master’s degree, go back home, and find a job. I never thought that I’d want to stay here. But all the support that I received from NAU has been mind-blowing, whether it’s been towards my personal development, career development, or even funding—all these three—I’ve been really happy and satisfied. That’s why I didn’t even have to think twice that I wanted to stay here for my PhD.

Glen researches the power harvesting capability of NiMnGa (Nickel-Manganese-Gallium) magnetic shape memory alloys (MSMAs). “They are a group of smart materials. If you subject it to a magnetic field it’s a material that elongates, then if you squeeze it, it’ll go back to its original shape—it remembers its shape,” Glen said.

His research is focused on optimizing the power and efficiency of the NiMnGa-based energy harvesters, and then modeling the behavior of the material. “When the MSMA changes its shape it also changes its magnetization and this property can be used to harvest energy which is otherwise dissipated in our surroundings, like a moving branch of a tree,” he said.

As part of his graduate program Glen teaches one section of Machine Design and is involved in all aspects of the course, from grading examinations to building demonstration kits for the class. Glen and Mechanical Engineering Professor and Department Chair Constantin Ciocanel developed these demonstration kits to help students complete their assignments and understand mechanical processes. These classroom experiences helped Glen gain an appreciation of teaching.

“It’s satisfying to know when someone understands what you’re trying to explain to them. So, my motive is to explain concepts to them in the easiest way that they can understand,” Glen said. “Because if they remember that, they’ll never forget the basic concepts. And then they can build on that.” Throughout his master’s degree and now his PhD, Ciocanel and Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Associate Chair of Graduate Studies Heidi Feigenbaum have been Glen’s advisors and mentors. They have helped him become a better scientist and teacher. “I think the biggest thing I learned while I was with them is endurance,” he said. “You need to keep going. Failures come from time to time, but you keep going and keep plowing through, and you’ll get there.”

Cultural connections

Flagstaff provided a culture shock for Glen. “I’m not used to people being so friendly in India. At least from where I come from in Mumbai, it’s a city, and it’s a fast city. People don’t have time for you,” Glen said. “But when I came to Flagstaff, I was like, wow, people randomly smile at you. People are so friendly. They care about you. Now, I cherish that.”

Since starting at NAU, Glen has been involved with the India Association and is the current president.

“The primary goal of this club is spreading Indian culture to the NAU community,” Glen said. “Our main focus is having events, just fun events, for people to know how Indians dress, the different languages, the music, the dance, and food, of course.” He explained the international community—especially the Indian community—is small, allowing for groups to get to know other cultures. “Here at NAU, it has really helped me go out and mingle with people of different cultures, and also explore my leadership skills,” Glen said. “I think NAU is really focused towards developing international culture.”

An international education during the pandemic

How have you been doing since the start of the pandemic? Has it impacted your research or courses?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I must admit I was scared with the chaos in every aspect of life. There were many questions and few answers. But as time went by, I have adapted to the pandemic situation. Working and studying from home have been challenging but reminding myself of all the help and support that I have around me—in the form of family, friends, and NAU—makes it easier.

With the onset of the pandemic, my research switched to more of an analytic nature—analyzing data and writing research papers—which I could do from the comfort of my home. However, during the last month or so, while taking appropriate precautions, I have resumed conducting experiments in the Multifunctional Materials and Adaptive Systems Laboratory to continue my ongoing research on the power harvesting capability of magnetic shape memory alloys.

So, it has been mostly an adaptive approach.

Are you able to communicate with your family as usual?

Yes, I am able to communicate with my family, as usual. I have been using a video social media platform like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, to communicate with them daily. In fact, after the onset of the pandemic, I communicate with them twice a day or more often—for about 15 to 30 minutes—to spend more time with them and to check on their health. We even celebrate birthdays and special occasions together on video calls.

What has your experience been with NAU’s response to the pandemic?

I am grateful to NAU for maintaining summer research positions during the pandemic and the opportunity to keep working towards my research goals and PhD. I would like to thank my advisor Dr. Constantin Ciocanel, Professor and Department Chair of Mechanical Engineering, who made this happen. His constant support and advice have helped me navigate through this tough situation.

What are students, and you, in the India Association doing to keep themselves occupied? Have you heard from other international students and how they are doing?

We have a few plans for the India Association this semester, keeping in mind that this is not going to be a regular semester. At the beginning of the pandemic, a few students travelled back to India while the rest stayed in Flagstaff. And many students were finding it difficult to adapt to the work-from-home culture and online classes. We started planning Zoom meetings for them so that we could meet and greet each other and look out for one another.

We are working towards expanding our social media outreach to contribute towards spreading awareness on the coronavirus and using masks and social distancing. In fact, one of our returning students from India has procured some masks that we plan on distributing to those in need in the NAU and Flagstaff community.

We are still keen on promoting Indian culture during the pandemic. We will be planning on an online approach towards celebrations like Diwali-Festival of Lights, which was a great success last year. Possibly having dance, singing, and fashion show performances filmed individually by the students, and then putting them together.

Are you happy with NAUFlex or NAU’s “pivot” to online learning? Or did this even impact you as a PhD student?

The pandemic is a challenging situation, and it increases the pressure on international students to provide for their family, while taking care of themselves and continuing to study effectively. I really appreciate NAU’s swift and adaptive response to the pandemic. NAU’s hybrid model makes me feel comfortable knowing I have the option of switching to online learning, without it affecting my immigration status. I am extremely happy and appreciative of NAU’s stand with the US Department of Homeland Security and that makes me feel I am valued as an international student at NAU.