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2007 George Barbour Award for Promoting Good Faculty-Student Relations: Urmila Ghia

“Any University-level award is like Olympic Gold,” says Urmila Ghia. “So obviously, receiving the Barbour Award is an extraordinary, rewarding feeling.”

Date: 4/6/2007 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover, photojournalist

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Urmila Ghia, this year’s recipient of the Barbour Award for Good Faculty-Student Relations.
Urmila Ghia is this year’s recipient of the Barbour Award for Good Faculty-Student Relations.

Urmila Ghia, this year’s recipient of the Barbour Award for Good Faculty-Student Relations, is a professor of mechanical engineering and the director of the CFD (computational fluid dynamics) Research Lab. She is known internationally for her expertise in theoretical and computational fluid dynamics. But what most people on the University of Cincinnati campus associate with Urmila Ghia is the Women in Science and Engineering program (WISE). In fact, as she took the time to talk about winning the Barbour Award, she was in the middle of evaluating student applications for the summer Research Experiences for Women Undergraduates (REWU).

Hard work is no stranger to Urmila Ghia.

“Students in my classes generally say I work them a lot, and make them work very hard,” she says with a smile. “Let me tell you, I work just as much and as hard if not more, for my classes, to prepare all these assignments, in addition to the ‘lectures.’ When I was department head and teaching, one graduate student remarked, ‘You don’t have to be a martyr!’”

Alum Pavan Mutnuri said that students knew they could take advantage of her work ethic: “Every student of Dr. Ghia has that liberty of approaching her either in person or over the phone about resolving any professional or personal issues at any time, and she is very well known for her extended working hours. There are many instances when I called her at home during late night hours for resolving key issues.”

Ghia says that a major part of teaching is getting students to do things they don’t necessarily enjoy or want to do.

“Especially when they are taking a class that is required, not one that they want to take,” she says. Then when they get their grades, they’re not always happy. “But when I saw some of the things that the students wrote in their letters of support, it was all worth it.”

Even before she began to teach students to work hard, she herself was a hard-working student. When she was a child, her mother taught her at home in northern India, in their native Hindi tongue. Ghia’s mother took Urmila to school when she was 5 years old and told the school officials that she should be entered in the second grade, which she was.

After two years, her mother said she felt Urmila should move up to grade 5. The school officials said that fractions were required for fifth grade. “Can your girl do fractions?” they asked. “Yes, she can do fractions,” Ghia’s mother replied with confidence.

“Then she took me home and taught me fractions,” says Urmila Ghia today, laughing. The family later moved southward to Bombay, and Ghia’s mother repeated the whole pattern — this time, with an English-speaking school. “She inspired me, gracefully handling whatever life hands you.”

Urmila Ghia in class.
As a young instructor, Ghia felt she had to establish her credibility in classes of mostly male engineers.

Ghia has evolved throughout her career teaching engineering to college students.

“When I started out, as a young female professor in engineering, not very tall, in front of a class of tall men, some athletes, I felt I had to establish I was a serious faculty member, very good at what I do,” she says. “Once that was established, I could focus on working closely with them and create a more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.”

“Many an evening, she can be found in her office late into the evening, sitting with her students to resolve issues with their research or helping them with a scholarship/fellowship application to support their graduate education, or counseling them on their job search, or whatever else they may be needing,” says Frank M. Gerner, associate dean for undergraduate and administrative affairs in the College of Engineering. “She is the only class advisor I know who took the initiative to get the class together at the end of the quarter to meet with her class students, when they were still sophomores.”

In her teaching, Ghia tries to teach students how to learn, that is, the process of learning, just as much as teaching them the subject material itself. There is not enough time to teach them all that needs to be taught.

“My philosophy is that I can’t teach them everything about the subject within our time together,” she says. “So if they can learn how to learn, they can learn anything about any subject.” This way, she hopes to whet their appetites in the subject matter so that they can go off and learn more on their own terms. “When one enters the job market, it’s the same way,” says Ghia. “You look at the problem and methodology, then solve it. One learns best by doing.”

Ghia incorporates this philosophy into her classroom teaching. So, even in traditional non-laboratory courses, she makes the students solve problems in class, and in front of the class. “In the participatory approach, they truly learn,” she says. “I don’t call on just the top students, but students at all levels.”

“This way, I can also see their thinking, and guide them better,” Ghia continues. “It takes much more time this way to solve a problem than if I would do it myself in front of the class, but the students gain more out of it than if I would do the problems in front of the class. Because then they would just nod and write down the solution as I developed it. I try to engage their multiple senses — hearing (the discussion), touch (writing, long-hand), and seeing (the solution worked out in class in front of them).”

Ghia takes the same approach with her WISE students: people learn best by doing.  

“Similarly for the WISE students, the process of doing research is what I emphasize,” she says. “Their mentors help them do their actual research project. My goal is to help these young women gain the confidence that they can become scientists and engineers, and have very successful careers in these fields.”

Ghia also encourages the WISE students to appreciate the need to be able to communicate to multiple audiences with a variety of comprehension levels for different purposes.  She emphasizes the importance of graduate school and professional study. Through WISE, many young women have developed a love of science and research — some have even been able to realize that research would not be a good career choice for them. Ghia takes special pleasure in seeing the WISE students give their presentations at the annual WISE conference — a picture of confidence gained by learning the process of research and by doing their research project.

One WISE alumna and a current biomedical engineering major, Alexzandra Spatholt, wrote Ghia when she learned of the award. “I know I can speak for many in the WISE program when I say how proud we are of you,” wrote Spatholt. “You have given many of us experiences that have and will continue to bring some very exciting opportunities.”

“I owe a great deal to all of the WISE mentors, to the WISE Committee and the presenters, and to UC’s sponsorship of the program,” says Ghia, gratefully.

Urmila Ghia’s mother, whom she calls a “pillar of courage,” was one of the inspirations for this attitude. “‘Do well,’ she tells me when I am to go out of town for a conference,” says Ghia. “Then she says, ‘So everyone will proudly say that a woman from India did such a good job.’”

In addition to her mother, her father also inspired her. “My father was a very exacting person, with no tolerance for mediocrity,” she says. “A man of great vision, he set an example for us through working very hard — working very hard in his job and for his family. I draw on that for my inspiration to work hard.”

Urmila Ghia is part of a teaching team: husband, Kirti, also teaches engineering at the University of Cincinnati. “My husband inspires me with his creativity, his youthful outlook and his love for life,” she says. She and her husband have two daughters, of whom she is immensely proud, as she is of her sons-in-law as well.

“They are good children, very accomplished — lawyers, doctors and a cardiologist — I could go on and on, and oh, so loving,” she says, beaming. “They energize me with their accomplishments and their love.”

“I always felt she was there for me anytime and every time I needed, be it at her office, in the parking lot, in the cafeteria, or in the hallway, she always had that extra minute for you, which made all the difference,” says Nandita Jena (MBA, ’02). “She is one of the very few faculty members who are well versed with information about things like course requirements, registration and degree requirements. …I am sure all her former students will agree with me when I say that she considers her students no different than her own wonderful daughters.”

Ghia appreciates when her students say they learned something in her class or in their research. 

“It is a huge reward when they say you’ve inspired them in some way!” she says. “I’ve had some great graduate students, and their accomplishments inspire me. When they go out into the professional world, and their employers rave about them — that’s very satisfying. One company (CD-Adapco) took in three of our graduate students in the last two years, and is so happy, and they let us know so at any opportunity they get. That’s very satisfying.”

“I always tell my outgoing graduate students that they need to do well at their jobs, as they are the gateway for future students getting placed with that company, and they need to keep that door open for others to join that company, and also to keep my word credible with the company for themselves and hence for future placement.”

Ghia works with both graduate and undergraduate students at UC. She points out that when she’s working with the undergraduates, she’s always interacting with the same age group, “so time appears to stand still, and you forget about your age. That’s wonderful!” She especially enjoys that after her students graduate, they get married and often bring their children, nieces and nephews to UC to see her. She has run into former students, no matter where, from the Charles de Gaulle airport to a flight back from D.C. to Cincinnati.

Besides her family and students, Ghia appreciates her colleagues “at UC and the world over,” she says. “They have been so supportive, to work with me towards some major goals both technical and professional.” For example, Ghia is now on a committee charged with preparing for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) the PTC61 Guide called “Verification and Validation in Computational Fluid Dynamics and Heat Transfer.”

“Last July, I chaired a conference that I jointly organized in Miami, Fla., for the ASME Fluids Engineering Division with five European societies (Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Netherlands) and ASME’s Nuclear Engineering Division,” says Ghia proudly. “The conference drew 1,100 attendees — a record for our summer conference. So what came next? ASME tapped me to be Technical Program Chair for the International Mechanical Engineers Conference and Exposition 2007, to be held this November, in Seattle.  We have received over 2,700 abstracts for the conference.”

“In all these efforts, I work with so many individuals — all so willing to lend a hand, and provide support, and the intellectual stimulation and inspiration I enjoy.” Ghia has a desire to do something of what she calls, “wider impact, e.g., a rotation at NSF, but the time is not right for that right now.” So she is looking at the broader picture locally for now. For example, she recently agreed to join the YWCA Racial Justice Committee.

Like the 8-year-old that she once was, learning fractions so she could enter fifth grade, Ghia is still setting goals for herself and her students: 
• Make them have a good experience, so they leave with allegiance to UC and fond memories of their experience.
• Offer more opportunities for social interactions.
• Develop a better system to keep in touch with alumni.
• Provide the students additional teaching support, such as academic Resident Advisors in the residence halls
• Encourage alumni to visit classrooms to motivate the students by sharing real-world experiences with class.

Perhaps WISE woman Spatholt summed it up best when she wrote to Ghia, “Though you seem so humble in all that you do, I want you to know that you have made a great impact on many of us and you truly deserve this award. It has been a pleasure to have you in my life. You are truly a role model.”

“I enjoy what I do,” Ghia says. “I plan on continuing to do that.”

About the Barbour Award for Good Faculty-Student Relations
George Barbour, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UC from 1938–58, was one of the most beloved teachers of his time. After his retirement, Barbour's students honored him by creating the George Barbour Award, given to faculty who best exemplify good faculty-student relations.


Read more about UC’s "royal" couple: “Kirti and Urmila Ghia: Rewarding Three Decades of Excellence.”



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