Focus on new faculty: Pavana Prabhakar, maintaining integrity of structural materials

// Civil & Environmental Engineering

Tags: CEE, Faculty, Pavana Prabhakar, research

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Pavana Prabhakar ensures that structures maintain their integrity in the face of extreme conditions, or in other words, that our buildings, ships and vehicles don’t break.

As a new assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, she will be working with a variety of hybrid materials and novel manufacturing technologies, such as additive manufacturing for lightweight polymeric composites, to improve their load-bearing abilities by developing relevant simulation and computational tools.

“Not all components are load-bearing in structures,” she says. “But if a component has to sustain extreme loads and is situated in critical areas of a structure, then you have to pay more attention to what is manufactured and the technology used.”

One of the major challenges of her field is gauging the effectiveness of certain structures before they are actually manufactured. Because trial and error is expensive and time consuming, researchers like Prabhakar must develop predictive tools to understand the influence of myriad system parameters that are often encountered with extremely complex hybrid materials.

Modern manufacturing technologies produce a huge variability in materials, and for Prabhakar, it’s important to ensure their quality, and understand their failure behavior under extreme conditions.

In 2015, she received a Young Investigator Program Award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which will continue to fund her research at UW-Madison on the topic of novel multiscale design of interfaces for polymeric composites and bonded joints using additive manufacturing.

At an early age, Prabhakar was heavily influenced by the world of science and engineering. Her mother is a physics professor with a PhD in materials science, and her father is a civil engineering professor with a PhD in aerospace; she was driven to pursue the same path.

“People ask me often why I gravitated toward being a professor, and I think it’s because I was fascinated by the service my parents were providing to students,” she says. “That really motivated me to follow their path.”

Because of her early exposure to the rigor of academic life, Prabhakar has had a very focused approach to her education: She knew above all that she wanted to earn a PhD so that one day she could become a faculty member. From pursuing her undergraduate degree at the National Institute of Technology Karnataka in India, she moved to California to study structures in civil and environmental engineering at UC-Berkeley. She received her master’s degree in 2008, and then moved to the University of Michigan, where she earned her PhD in aerospace engineering. Following her education, she worked for three years as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“This is what I always wanted to do—I wanted to be an educator,” Prabhakar says.

For her, students offer new and exciting perspectives on many challenges in research, which is much of the reason she enjoys the university environment. “Here, I can interact with all these fresh minds and explore new things along with them,” she says.

Her research and teaching style are student-centric, and she encourages the involvement of undergraduate students—giving them experience so they can understand the value of research early on, and then pursue their own interests.

Prabhakar also provides a unique perspective in her research because of the summers she has spent working in government facilities. By engaging in these experiences, she has ensured that her research pursuits are relevant and current. She has spent time at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Naval Surface Warfare Center and Air Force Research Lab as a summer research faculty member. At Oak Ridge, she worked toward relieving defects in materials fabricated by additive manufacturing processes. By developing a computational model to simulate the steps involved in the electronic beam melting process, and experimenting with different parameters, she was able to identify key problems associated with their methodology.

“Working with the government was a great experience because I got to know what the real challenges are,” Prabhakar says. “This allowed me to connect my research to solve problems they were having.”

Through the AFOSR YIP Award, and the Charles G. Salmon Fellowship—awarded to her through the Department of Civil and Environment Engineering—she will be able to work on similar challenges in her research at UW-Madison.

Because Prabhakar’s research intersects a number of fields, she looks forward to collaborating with faculty in engineering physics, materials science and mechanical engineering, dissecting topics such as additive manufacturing, mechanics of materials, damage and failure of materials in extreme conditions. “I think I have a lot of avenues to enrich myself because of the wide range of expertise in faculty here,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I really liked UW-Madison, other than the fact that I just like the vibe of Madison itself.”

She is also passionate about engaging women in engineering. In many of her undergraduate courses, women made up only 10 percent of the students, if not less. As a student, receiving female-focused fellowships like the Amelia Earhart Fellowship—which is awarded annually to 35 women from around the globe in aerospace engineering—helped push her forward, so she strongly believes in the idea of creating a community of role models.

“I can show them firsthand that if I can do it, so can you,” Prabhakar says. “I think women need a lot more female faculty in the field that they can look up to—I think that’s another big component of why I wanted to be a professor.”

Author: Lexy Brodt