The accidental engineer

Shekhar Bhansali’s life has taken him around the world. From his native India to Australia to Japan and finally the United States. Never one to follow the crowd, Bhansali instead chose a path that would test his ingenuity, show him new ways of approaching problems, and teach him lessons about working with people.

“I’m a messed-up engineer,” says Bhansali, now the Alcatel-Lucent Professor and chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Florida International University. “My life is not something that’s been planned.”

Today, Bhansali is known as a prolific researcher with 16 U.S. Patents to his credit and has more than 75 published journal papers and 100 conference papers, in addition to editing a book and five book chapters. But he has followed a path that has taken many turns. 

As a young man growing up in India, he saw only two possible careers for himself –doctor or engineer. He never liked biology, so he pursued his Bachelor’s degree in Metallurgical Engineering from Malaviya National Institute of technology in Jaipur before going to work for an aerospace company. There he got a reality check when he was asked to do a complete aircraft engine overhaul.

“I was like, ‘Look, I didn’t train for this,’” Bhansali recalls. “And the simple answer I got was you’re either a good engineer or you’re not a good engineer. A good engineer can figure the way out. So it was baptism by fire. ”

After receiving a master’s degree in Aircraft Production Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bhansali moved to Australia, where he found his calling.  Picking up a copy of Scientific American magazine from a mentor’s desk, he saw a photo of a gear so tiny it could fit on the foot of an ant. He discovered a passion for nanostructures and microsystems and began pursuing his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. 

Bhansali then went to work in Japan. “The whole word goes west, so I decided I’m going to go east,” he explains. It was the most wonderful two years of his life and a great learning experience, he says.

He was intrigued by stories about Japan he’d heard. The Japanese, he said, struck to him as being very different people.

“How different?” Bhansali asks. “If Americans think in straight lines, Japanese think in circles.”

“Number one, consensus is important,” he explains. “They take time to come to a decision. But once they come to a decision the execution is lightening fast.

Bhansali was also struck by the discipline, organization, and respect he saw in the Japanese. 

“Another thing I learned in Japan is you respect people for who they are and what they are and what they bring to the table,” he said. “Amazing humility in that country.”

His experiences have shaped Bhansali and how he approaches his life and his work.

After two years in Japan, he came to the United States to do post-doctoral work at the University of Cincinnati before leaving for Tampa, where he spent more than a decade at the University of South Florida, building a program that was among the top 10 Ph.D. producers for Hispanic Americans and African Americans. While at USF, Bhansali created several research and training programs to increase diversity, retention and graduation rates.

His work as a mentor has been recognized numerous times, including the 2009 and 2011 William R. Jones Outstanding Mentor Award from the Florida Education Fund, the 2009 Mentor of the Year Award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

“Taking an ‘average’ first time in college student and helping them in a career that’s going to change their life…that’s priceless” Bhansali says. “As they in the ads, for everything else there is a credit card.” 

Bhansali came to FIU in 2011 and was immediately impressed. 

“FIU is an institution right now that is at the cusp of greatness,” he says. “I was blown away when I came here and saw what was going on in the department.” 

The department faculty recently voted on a comprehensive changes to admission and curriculum focused on giving all interested students the depth and breadth of education that industry demands by giving them the opportunity to take up to 20 courses as electives.

The department is also working to improve students’ communications skills and partnering with industry so students can work with mentors early on. Bhansali recently reached an agreement with Motorola, which is loaning equipment to the department to help create a new RF communications laboratory and providing expertise to train students on state-of-the-art infrastructure.

“What that does is gives our students a quantum leap,” Bhansali says. “By embedding industrial perspectives and processes in their academic training, they would already know, at the point of graduation, what an employer today thinks an engineer will know two years into a job.  They’re already closely working with people in industry who are telling them what they need to know today.”