UW News

May 31, 2007

Raj Bordia

German graduate student Andre Zimmerman moved to Maryland to complete his doctoral research. But two months after he arrived, the government lab where he was working shut down. He found himself in a foreign country with no institution, a thesis to write and a visa that expired in six months.

A colleague suggested he contact Raj Bordia. Zimmerman did so. A few days later Bordia picked him up at the Seattle airport and invited him to spend the week living in the Bordias’ home before hunting for an apartment. Then Zimmerman joined the group and resumed his research.

Zimmerman now works as a ceramics engineer at a German company. His arrival in Seattle was unusual. But the support he describes — frequent meetings, intellectual challenges, late-night discussions, financial support to attend conferences — is representative of Bordia’s interactions with young scientists. Bordia is the recipient of this year’s Marsha L. Landolt Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award.

The engineer’s gentle manner brings order to an office that’s piled high with folders, paper and journals.

“Mentoring of graduate students is one of the most important things we do,” says Bordia, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering. “I see it as training the next generation of scholars and the next generation of colleagues.”

Almost every student who passed through his lab wrote in support of his application for the award. Jessica Torrey, a recent graduate, remembers that when she first arrived from upstate New York she was apprehensive about coming to a big university in a major city.

“Within the first few weeks Prof. Bordia hosted one of his summer barbecues at his home and introduced me not only to our entire research group, but also his family and several group alumni,” she says. “This made me feel much more at ease in my new situation.”

Bordia recognizes the importance of social connections.

“Part of being a doctoral scholar is going very deeply into one problem,” he says. “The one danger is you can also become somewhat isolated. It is very important that students build strong personal and professional networks.”

Former lab members recall barbecues and Super Bowl parties at their adviser’s home. One doctoral student defended her dissertation the daybefore Bordia and his wife were catching an early morning flight to India. Nevertheless, the couple held a celebration in their home and postponed the packing until the wee hours.

As another strategy to get out of the laboratory, Bordia encourages hisstudents to attend conferences and helps them prepare thoroughly beforehand.

Conferences are crucial in building professional networks, he says. He’ll call up his colleagues who will be attending the meeting and tell them when and where his student will be presenting, and encourage them to attend the talk.

He believes that nurturing a graduate student is a bit like parenting — knowing when to lend support and when to step back. This is the one area where he’s changed his approach over time. “In the beginning, maybe I was a bit more cautious and reluctant to let the students go. But over time I learned to trust them,” he says. “With every student I see this: a point where the problem they’re working on becomes their problem. And I think that’s the transformative point.”

Bordia completed his undergraduate engineering degree at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and pursued graduate studies at Cornell University. He spent more than five years as a research scientist at DuPont before arriving at the UW in 1991.

In their nomination letters, colleagues from other institutions commented on Bordia’s ability to combine student support with outstanding academic standards. Students say Bordia pushed them intellectually while offering support with personal issues, such as family responsibilities or illness.

As department chair from 1998 to 2005, he worked to recruit more diverse students.Many former lab members have now left the academic nest and are flying on their own, with careers in industry or academia. Bordia enjoys staying in touch.

“It’s very, very satisfying to see students mature to become professional colleagues,” he says.