With an undergraduate degree in agricultural engineering, a master’s degree in remote sensing and GIS and a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering, this College of Engineering professor’s career trajectory was anything but clear cut. The interdisciplinary approach he took within the field of engineering he’s continued to apply in all aspects of his work.
He has brought complicated STEM topics to the public through the College of Sciences’ Science Cafe project, partnered with College of Education faculty to win competitive grants, and collaborated across campus and the community to share his passion and knowledge of engineering.
How is remote teaching going for you?
I was probably a little ahead of the curve on it. I started online teaching when I came to UNLV. I had always been interested in distance learning and realized it was a valuable skill to have. In the beginning, it was time-intensive to record every lab, but I was able to reap the benefits of that time investment over the next four years. Then, every semester, I would add more content to what already existed.
What do you see as the biggest challenges of remote learning for faculty and students?
I think one of the biggest challenges is the adoption of technology. It changes rapidly. Adopting new technology can be harder than it seems and isn’t always that straight-forward.
It’s important to make sure that students are on board and technology is not a curse, but a blessing. I spend time in the first class going through all the buttons with students, asking them to open their chat box and say "hi" to me so they know how to ask a question in the future, how to raise their hand, tell me if they can or can’t hear me. I ask them to use emojis to let me know they are there, need me to slow down or speed up. When I was face-to-face, I could see students’ expressions. If I saw someone dozing off, I could ask them a question. Now I can’t. So every few minutes I have to remember to unmute them and ask questions.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities for faculty and students?
I think a big opportunity is recording live sessions so students have the ability to re-listen to courses, pause when they need to, and better understand concepts that may have been confusing the first time they heard them.
I’m still able to run labs, like fluid mechanics, remotely in real time. I have TAs in the lab streaming so students watching remotely can work with data as it presents itself.
What do you miss most about campus?
My health! My campus routine was nice. My first stop was the Recreation Center, then I’d walk to SEB. I had a standing desk in my office, and every hour I’d get up and walk around. I like to walk when I’m thinking about something. I also miss the people and places on campus that made up my days previously.
You’re an expert in geographic information systems (GIS), among other things. Is this what you thought you’d be doing when you grew up?
My dad was an electrical technician in Pakistan and Libya where I grew up. I wanted to study electrical engineering (EE) too, but to be honest, I didn’t have high enough high school grades to get into EE. Luckily, I was accepted in agricultural engineering. I have a master’s in remote sensing and GIS and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. When it comes to engineering, my background is quite interdisciplinary.
I’m now in the civil and environmental engineering department. That was the result of a combination of academic pathways as well as opportunities that came along. When the position was open for the college, my application went to both the electrical engineering and civil engineering departments. It was only after I started my job at UNLV that I really got into one area.
I’ve always been interested in researching the dynamics of what happens on the surface of the earth. I still think it’s amazing that sitting in my office I can look at any part of the globe and try to understand climate and the processes going on there. This is a great fit for me.
Why do you think it is important to be able to talk about and present what you research, and how you research it, to the broader public?
Everything I do is funded by the public. I think it is important that they understand how university professors are using that funding and that they don’t feel disconnected from us.
I’ve also always been interested in talking to high school students. While research itself may be outside the scope of what we teach in an undergrad degree, learning about it could motivate a young student or person to pursue a new path.
You’re the principal investigator (PI) on a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant to boost engineering student retention, specifically in civil engineering. Why was this important for you to help spearhead?
The idea came up through multiple meetings with co-PIs. When I became the undergraduate coordinator for the department, I had access on how our undergraduate program was performing. I was introduced to retention and graduation rates. We were losing so many students in the first two years of their studies, and those numbers were startling to me.
We realized that we don’t have a social infrastructure to keep the students we were losing. If I’m a first-generation college student and I want to become a CEEC (civil and environmental engineering and construction) major, if I don’t make connections with my first-year faculty and students who can help me, those students will drift away.
Through the grant project, we have weekly activities, students hang out with each other and faculty, and we create a community outside the classroom. This is really important, especially to vulnerable students at risk of leaving the college. The driving force is to change the culture and make students comfortable interacting with faculty.
We’re also addressing curriculum and doing faculty training. For example, over the next four years we’ll be offering eight two-hour modules annually to help our faculty become more inclusive in their own teachings and better able to handle diverse populations.
Outside of your work, what are you passionate about?
That keeps changing over time. I’m definitely passionate about my two daughters — who are 7 and 3 — and working with them. Because I’m an engineer, I love building things and doing experiments with them. One fun thing we do is “surgery” on broken toys.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
When I came to Las Vegas in 2007, I was single. Now I’m married, with two kids, and in my backyard I have dogs, cats, a garden, six horses, and 35 chickens!