A life’s work 

Praveen Sekhar

Praveen Sekhar’s research and his teaching go hand in hand.

Curiosity got Praveen Sekhar off to a good start. Studying for his bachelor’s degree in India, he recalls, “I was very curious about exploring new things as I was introduced to research methods. Gaining experience through volunteering in research studies, I went to conferences and workshops and wrote technical papers and won multiple awards in India. I paid my tuition with the award money.”

His curiosity sparked a lot of hard work. After earning his bachelor’s degree, Sekhar moved to the United States in 2002 to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of South Florida, where he did research on microelectromechanical systems and nanomanufacturing. Because he wanted to continue that work, he stayed on for his doctorate. His dissertation on silica nanowire-based sensors was named one of two Outstanding Dissertations at the USF engineering school in 2008.

All along Sekhar was gaining significant expertise and connections. During his time in Florida, he developed nanosensors for a National Science Foundation project and Moffitt Cancer Research Center. He spent the next two-plus years as a postdoctoral research associate at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where he trained extensively in electrochemical sensors as they related to explosives detection, hydrogen safety and emissions-control applications. He joined WSU Vancouver as an assistant professor in August 2011.

In 2015, he received the prestigious Alexander Von Humboldt Fellowship at the University of Cologne, Germany, where he collaborated with Professor Sanjay Mathur, director of the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry, on a series of tasks aimed at enhancing gas-sensor performance. Their partnership involved graduate students from both the University of Cologne and WSU Vancouver and resulted in three important journal publications. He was also invited to speak in Japan on low-cost sensors.

“I wanted to be part of something where I could have an impact on the program. You rarely get a change to imprint your signature.”

Currently Sekhar is an associate professor of electrical engineering in the School of Engineering and Computer Science and director of the Nanomaterials-Sensor Laboratory, and his research and reputation have continued to advance. He has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles in international publications and has made more than 30 presentations at international conferences since joining WSU Vancouver. The National Science Foundation frequently calls on him to review interdisciplinary proposals on chemical sensors. He is the associate editor of the Journal of the Electrochemical Society and vice chair of its sensors division.

In recognition of his impact on the field of electrochemical gas sensors, he was recently named a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry—an international award given for significant contributions to the field.

Praveen Sekhar with master’s student Mst Sharmin Shila testing the conductivity of a sensor that was printed in his lab

Born to teach

To focus on his professional prestige, however, is to miss much of what makes Sekhar tick—his equally impressive human side. All his interests and skills come together in his teaching.

“For me, teaching is a stress buster,” he said. “When I go into the classroom, I feel so happy when I see these kids ready to learn, and I love them so much. I want to see them succeed in their careers. It complements my research.”

One reason he was attracted to WSU Vancouver was the opportunity to help build the electrical engineering program. “When I saw the ad [for the opening] I saw that the electrical engineering program was being developed from scratch,” he said. “I wanted to be part of something where I could have an impact on the program. You rarely get a chance to imprint your signature.”

Sekhar and his colleagues designed the courses and created the program. He developed several new courses to add depth and breadth to the department’s offerings, always focusing on how electrical engineers could contribute to society and the nation. For a course titled “Emerging Trends in Electrical Engineering,” he asked people at local industries what they hoped students would learn to be prepared for work. He asked the students whom they would like to hear from, then enlisted speakers from companies such as Bonneville Power Administration, Intel and Sagetech to visit and share their wisdom.

“After that class, several students stopped me and ‘I got a job because of this course.’”

The course is tough—among other things, students must analyze engineering solutions, considering risks and trade-offs; review reports of journal articles; and deliver oral presentations accommodating audience interests and backgrounds. But the payoff is big. “After that class, several students stopped me and said, ‘I got a job because of this course,’” Sekhar said. “That makes my day, and that’s the reason I go to campus every day.”

He mentions a sophomore-level class in circuit analysis, where students get a sense of what electrical engineering is. “I told them that many think electrical engineering is a grind. What they don’t understand is that once you go out in the world, there are so many ways they can contribute. For example, there is a huge shortage of silicon chips for computers—who is going to produce them in the U.S.? And there will be a huge demand for power engineers. I told them ‘You are the future.’” His goal with his teaching is to help develop a diverse and civic-minded workforce that can collaborate to solve complex problems.

Praveen Sekhar teaching

The satisfaction of making an impact

Sekhar was recently inducted as a member of the WSU Teaching Academy. He currently chairs the Council of Faculty Representatives at the Vancouver campus and the Academic Affairs Committee for WSU systemwide.

He is a strong advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice. In recognition, WSU honored him with the MLK Spirit Award in April, and he was nominated for the Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Equity at WSU Vancouver. He has a special interest in broadening participation in engineering, particularly among women and nontraditional students. He is an executive member of iUrbanTeen, a national organization that encourages underrepresented middle and high school students to pursue STEM careers.

“Every summer I conduct outreach activities and make sure more students can access and pursue STEM degrees and create a knowledgeable workforce that can replace our currently aging workforce,” he said. “If I can make an impact on others, that makes me happy. It is so infectious. I also want to make an impact on people’s lives through my research.”

His motivating force goes well beyond curiosity. “I’m an immigrant from India, and this country has provided me with a lot of resources, facilities and knowledge,” Sekhar said. “I want to give back to this country in a meaningful way.” In WSU Vancouver’s Nanomaterials-Sensor Laboratory, he and his students do just that, working on solutions related to environmental pollution, national security, energy security and Internet of Things applications.