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Grad students make the college go

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Meet some of the college’s excellent Ph.D students

Graduate students develop and contribute to groundbreaking research, mentor undergraduate students, help bring in valuable funding and make the College of Engineering feel welcoming. Their day-to-day lives are busy, and without them, the College couldn’t be the world-class research enterprise that it is today.

Since the beginning of Louis Martin-Vega’s tenure as dean, he has focused on increasing the number of graduate students, especially Ph.D. students. As faculty members have expanded their research activities, more graduate students are needed to work on solving these research problems. And as the College has become more successful in its research endeavors, it has ascended through the rankings.

“NC State Engineering graduate students have a ‘can-do’ attitude that aligns perfectly with NC State’s Think and Do motto. They work on real problems, many supported by industry or research centers, consortia or laboratories,” said Richard Gould, interim associate dean of graduate programs. “Many can attend graduate school at any of the top schools in the country, but they chose NC State because of our excellence.”

portrait of Lauren AlvarezLauren Alvarez


Lauren Alvarez wants to use computer science as a tool to expose and combat racial and gender discrimination.

As a first-generation college student, Alvarez was involved in the McNair Scholars Program, which aims to help low-income, first-generation students or underrepresented students learn and prepare for graduate school. During a summer research program, she worked on a project about news bias detection.

“I realized computer science could be used as a social justice tool, and to change some of the discrimination that people felt, especially people like me or those in the communities I was involved in,” she said.

Alvarez is still finishing her preliminary research before starting her dissertation. She recently worked with undergraduate students to develop a racial equity education chatbot using the IBM Watson framework.

Outside of the classroom, she is a passionate mentor for students and is still involved with the McNair Scholars Program.

“I think James Baldwin said it best — that when one becomes educated and conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated,” she said. “I think that that’s a responsibility of people who are educated: to use their education and share it, to not be gatekeepers.”

Alvarez’s goal is to become a professor continuing her research and mentoring students through teaching to expand awareness and access to higher education and STEM.

Timothy Holder


As a student with a long list of interests, Timothy Holder knew that he wanted to be in an environment where he could acquire a skill set to take a product from ideation to market. He found that in the UNC / NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, where his research has primarily focused on the development of wearable devices.

“I’ve had a tremendous amount of collaboration,” he said. “To be able to collaborate with other people who think differently than you, who have a different perspective, made me a much better engineer, and, I think, human.”

Holder is involved with several research teams, but his main project is an interdisciplinary one that uses wearable devices to study human-dog interactions to optimize animal therapies for PTSD or cancer. One of his main roles has been to ensure that the study runs smoothly, as people in the community are the ones reporting back data.

“(The Ph.D. program) has really required an active mind and people who want to solve problems quickly,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing, and it gives me the sense that biomedical engineering and the biological sciences in the health space in general have a very, very bright future.”

Holder has also been a consistent mentor for undergraduate students, and he likes to bring in students who don’t have an engineering background.

“My goal is to get more people introduced to this field and to understand that they can do these things even though they thought otherwise,” he said.

portrait of Megan JohnsonMegan Johnson


Megan Johnson, who is working on her Ph.D. in environmental engineering, has taken an interdisciplinary approach to her research, using computer models to understand how smoke from wildfires and prescribed burns may affect public health. Additionally, she is creating and sending surveys through the NC State Parks Department to directly ask people their thoughts regarding fires.

“We’re trying to improve communications related to prescribed burning so that we might address potential misconceptions about the practice, and maybe to be able to understand where people might be more apprehensive about the practice,” she explained.

Johnson grew up in Colorado, where she saw early effects of climate change while outdoors with her family, and she developed an interest in atmospheric science and air quality.

Her computer modeling results have helped land managers understand smoke impacts from prescribed burns, which are necessary for certain ecosystems and help reduce wildfire risk. Her public surveys, which she presented at an international conference in December, are of interest to scientists in other parts of the U.S. who deal with prescribed burns and wildfires.

After graduation, she wants to find a role that combines technical research with outreach and communication.

“It’s important to keep (the public) in mind and understand what their concerns might be and how you might be able to address those concerns while still helping them, rather than just creating science, and hoping that people will understand,” she said.

portrait of Sayak MukherjeeSayak Mukherjee

PH.D. 2020

As the world moves toward more sustainable energy sources like solar and wind, the power grid must evolve to handle more complex and varied energy systems. Sayak Mukherjee’s research at the intersection of control systems, machine learning and power systems aims to make those adaptations more efficient.

“I want to make sure that we decrease the carbon footprint and improve sustainability. But to do that, you need to use techniques from the fields of controls, optimization and learning,” he said. “So, it’s a balance between your technical tools — control theory and machine learning — and your application domain expertise, which is the power and energy systems.”

Control theory is essential to provide desired performances for dynamical systems such as the power grid, Mukherjee explained. But as the grid becomes more complex, tractable control designs for the grid become heavily data-dependent, which requires the use of machine learning.

Now a postdoctoral research associate at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Mukherjee’s results from his research at NC State have already made an impact on the industry.

Mukherjee grew up in Kolkata, India, and he was drawn to NC State for graduate school because of the FREEDM Systems Center, which is developing a smarter electricity grid that can efficiently provide power from renewable sources.

At PNNL, he is working on several projects related to developing learning techniques for dynamics and control with applications to energy systems, and he wants to eventually work in a leadership role guiding technical lab research strategies related to optimization and control of the power and energy sector.

Return to contents or download the Spring / Summer 2021 NC State Engineering magazine (PDF, 52.0 MB).

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