As a keen student who enjoyed solving problems, Mohit Verma knew he wanted to study nanotechnology for the challenge of it. When he began his undergraduate studies at the University of Waterloo, the Nanotechnology Engineering (NE) program was only two years old. It was the first of its kind in Canada and, by straddling the disciplinary divide between science and engineering, it promised lots to discover, lots of problems to solve.
Even before completing his NE BASc, Mohit had figured out one problem that stymies many undergrad students: he knew that he wanted an academic career that combined research and teaching.
He met that goal in early 2018, with his appointment as Assistant Professor in the School of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University. Learn more about his research, which looks for ways to use nanotechnology to enhance health and thwart injuries, at vermalab.com.
Key Academic Awards
Knowing his career goal early helped Mohit map out a direct route from his BASc in Nanotechnology Engineering to a PhD in Chemical Engineering at Waterloo and then a post-doctoral fellowship at Whitesides Research Group at Harvard University, but his decision didn’t come easy.
Like many undergraduate students, Mohit faced some uncertainty in his early years of university. After a couple co-op terms, he couldn’t see himself in either the “constrained, product-focused world of industry” or the “thankless job of teaching university students.” He credits Waterloo’s strong co-op program for helping him find his calling.
“My co-op work terms offered me tremendous opportunities for learning,” he says. “I learned early that I chaffed at the limits that came with working within industry’s bureaucracy and narrow product scope and enjoyed the freedom to pursue my curiosity within research.
I had trouble, however, seeing myself as a professor. At the time, my limited experience in university had skewed my perception of what a professor did. I saw it as a thankless teaching job – a steady stream of student criticism punctuated by brief respites in the research lab.”
Mohit’s Co-op Work Term Employment History
An exciting co-op job in Professor Frank Gu’s research lab, where he worked on nanoparticle drug delivery devices, gave him a closer look at the life of a professor. The job was far different than he had imagined.
“Professors typically spend only 10-15% of their work time in the classroom and, as I discovered during some teaching assistantships during my PhD, teaching can be fun too,” says Mohit.
Now, as a professor whose research focusses on engineering human microbiomes to improve health, and designing user-friendly biosensors and developing soft robots to prevent injuries, Mohit has jumped into his teaching role with enthusiasm.
Problem Solving Redux
As he discusses on his blog, lifeofaprofessor.com, teaching isn’t easy, and it requires a special set of problem solving skills. Professor Verma is up for this challenge too: he is building an environment of learning and has incorporated new teaching strategies, including active learning, to teach students how to learn.
He explains: “…simply teaching technical concepts is insufficient. Successful careers require creative thinking and consideration of economic, global and societal implications of our work. Achieving these outcomes, achieving success, requires holistic teaching.”
Mohit says in his blog, “I see the potential of influencing the lives of students, the potential of building tomorrow’s leaders. If I can improve the career/life of a single student in my class… I would feel satisfied.”
Looking back on his time in Waterloo’s NE program, Mohit has some advice for new students:
1. Do as much as you can to build and strengthen your writing skills before and during your undergraduate degree. This useful skill will simplify your studies and make you a stronger candidate in whatever career you decide to pursue.”
My first-year self saw report writing as an onerous and unnecessary task. Writing assignments felt like a lot of un-necessary work – and for me they were, because I didn’t have the writing skills I needed to do them effectively or efficiently. I did not see the value in communications skills – writing in particular. I didn’t have good writing skills, and I didn’t appreciate them at the time.
Now, I understand that writing is an important skill. It’s more than just a way of sharing information. It’s a way of organizing thoughts. It’s a way of thinking.
2. Don’t expect to work in nano your first year. Anything cutting edge requires a lot of basic knowledge, and that’s reflected in the first year of the curriculum.
In retrospect, it doesn’t really matter what you do in your first co-op term. Lots of skills besides nano are required in the work force, and you can learn a lot on your first co-op placement. Besides - until you experience what you don’t want to do, you won’t learn what you do want to do. It’s all good.
3. The reason that there is such a diversity among NE grads’ careers is not because they ‘can’t get a job in nano,’ as some people unfamiliar with the program’s potential sometimes think. It’s because they have the thinking skills, problem solving abilities and wide-ranging interests to achieve a variety of things, and they have the curiosity and interests to pursue them. Their NE degree does not limit their career choice – it expands it.