Engineering doctoral student gains industry experience through NSF program

(From left) Deputy Director of CADMIM Gisela Lin, MIE Professor Jie Xu, UIC student Alireza Ahmadian-Yazdi, and Principal Innovation Manager at Beckman Coulter David Yang.

By David Staudacher

Ph.D. candidate Alireza Ahmadian Yazdi has taken his studies outside the laboratory and into the working world. The mechanical and industrial engineering (MIE) student jumped at the opportunity to take on a five-month internship at California-based Beckman Coulter, a leading company in biomedical instruments.

Ahmadian Yazdi, who is working on his Ph.D. under the direction of MIE assistant professor Jie Xu in the Microfluidics Laboratory and being co-advised by associate professor Vikas Berry in the Department of Chemical Engineering at UIC, was awarded a $55,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) INTERN program to pursue the unique opportunity that started in January and runs through May. This grant was a supplement to the NSF Industry-University Cooperative Research Center award for the Center for Advanced Design and Manufacturing of Integrated Microfluidics (CADMIM), co-directed by Professor Abe Lee at the University of California, Irvine, and Professor Ian Papautsky at UIC.

The grant is geared toward fostering the growth of a globally competitive and diverse research workforce and advancing the scientific and innovation skills of the nation. It provides funding for non-academic research internships for graduate students to support career opportunities in any sector of the U.S. economy and ensures graduate students are well prepared for the 21st-century workforce.

“My experience with the Global Innovation Team at Beckman Coulter is teaching me a new thought process,” Ahmadian Yazdi said. “Solutions to pressing issues in health care are mostly market-driven as opposed to driven by new technologies. In fact, existing technologies might be further ahead of the market needs. Hopefully, this new mindset helps me with the rest of my Ph.D. thesis, as well as future career.”

“As a Ph.D. student, he is not only focused on fundamental research but also learning practical industry experience, making him a well-rounded engineer,” Xu said. “It is important that graduate students supported by NSF grants be provided opportunities to develop skills that prepare them to be successful for a broad range of academic and non-academic career paths. In addition to deep and broad preparation in their technical areas of expertise, skills and knowledge — regarding communication, innovation and entrepreneurship, leadership and management, and policy and outreach — are becoming increasingly valuable to enter any sector of the workforce.”

The ultimate goal of Ahmadian Yazdi’s Ph.D. thesis is to overcome existing challenges in health care. To achieve this, his method is mainly proposing technological solutions. However, knowing what these challenges are and whether the solutions are proper answers to them can be very difficult with a lack of industry experience. The internship is helping him to understand different perspectives.

“It is different in our way of problem-solving. In the lab, we solve problems by proposing new technologies or modifying existing ones. However, this can be a relatively high-risk approach for industry,” said Ahmadian Yazdi. “Therefore, [at the internship] we intend to propose solutions that are most preferable for current, and future potential customers. The solutions can be quite simple, yet fit greatly into the existing workflows.”

While he is gaining new perspectives at the internship, Ahmadian Yazdi credits UIC as well as CADMIM with preparing him for the position and the working world when he graduates.

“UIC gave me the opportunity to study for a Ph.D. and take part in top-notch research projects,” he said. “I definitely recommend UIC’s Ph.D. program for those looking for a Ph.D. position. I work at two labs, Microfluidics Lab in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and Dr. Vikas Berry’s Research Lab in the chemical engineering eepartment. Both departments are highly research-oriented and there is a growing interest in high impact and ground-breaking research projects. I am confident that this atmosphere would benefit current and future Ph.D. students.”

“CADMIM is a unique innovation ecosystem where faculty, students, NSF, and companies work together in developing integrated lab-on-a-chip solutions to real-world problems,” he said. “I have been very fortunate to be involved in a CADMIM project. These industry-supported research projects are more practical and they are aiming toward creating intellectual property. In fact, Beckman Coulter is an industrial member of CADMIM, and they hosted my internship through CADMIM.”

Learn more about the MIE Graduate studies program at http://mie.uic.edu/graduate-studies. Learn more about Professor Xu’s research at Microfluidics Laboratory. Learn more about CADMIM at http://www.inrf.uci.edu/cadmim.

Learn more about Beckman Coulter at www.beckman.com

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