Gratitude Benefits Graduate Students

The Thapar Fellowship attracts brilliant young researchers to Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Some 40 years ago, when Hemant Thapar first considered where to attend graduate school, Purdue topped his list. For good reason. Highly ranked, the (then) School of Electrical Engineering produced some of the world's foremost research in his chosen area - circuits and systems. This year, Thapar (MSEE '77, PhD '79) is helping to make graduate school an easier option for students at his alma mater.

Thapar and his wife, Suniti, established the Hemant and Suniti Thapar Fellowship in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, a $400,000 gift to support one or two graduate students each year. By making a graduate education affordable, the award dovetails nicely into Purdue Moves, the University's overall strategy for delivering higher education at the highest proven value. The gift also supports the College of Engineering's Strategic Growth Initiative, with its goal of enrolling 3,500 graduate students by 2016.

Innovation Incubation

A Silicon Valley engineer who has launched and sold two successful startups, Thapar is now building his third - OmniTier Storage, a software company that is developing cloud-based data storage solutions. He had previous success in the hardware business - specifically in semiconductor chips for data storage and communications, the complexities of which he studied at Purdue.

As a student, Thapar conducted leading-edge research in the EE graduate program, one of the most challenging on campus. In addition to studying, Thapar says he thoroughly enjoyed his time at Purdue, making the most of West Lafayette's cultural offerings and college-town atmosphere.

"I was always interested in starting my own company," Thapar says. "I was fortunate to work with some of the world's leading researchers at Purdue. They helped me develop confidence in coming up with solutions to problems, and later I combined those skills with learning how to lead people and build a business."

With a PhD in hand, Thapar was hired at Bell Laboratories. "Purdue opened doors for me in the early part of my career," he says. "Bell Labs was the place to be if you were interested in innovation."

After five years at Bell Labs, Thapar worked nine years at IBM before venturing out on his own. Persistence, he says, is perhaps his greatest strength as an engineer and business owner. "Whether you're working for yourself or leading others, you have to believe in the mission you’ve taken on."

Recruiting Boost

As the largest graduate program on campus with more than 700 students, the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering receives more than 2,400 applications each year. The challenge, even with such large numbers, is to continuously recruit the best-of-the-best to the graduate program, which ranks No. 10 in the nation.

"Graduate students are in high demand right now," says Dimitrios Peroulis, professor of electrical and computer engineering and deputy director of the Birck Nanotechnology Center. "Students really contribute to the research mission of the University. They are often the ones thinking of new ways to address important problems."

Peroulis employs 15 graduate students, as well as a number of research scientists, in the area of wireless communications and sensors. He knows that graduate students make decisions deliberately. "They're mature. They may have satisfied their parents' desire for them to earn an undergraduate degree," he says. "At that point, they often have an interest in research, or they seek a greater learning experience. It's a prime time to recruit them."

Gifts like the Thapar Fellowship, Peroulis says, will help attract these young researchers - people who ultimately will help give Purdue Engineering a competitive edge over peer research institutions.

As for Thapar, the gift represents a homecoming of sorts to a campus he first encountered four decades ago. "I wouldn't have been able to attend Purdue without the research assistantship I received," Thapar says. "If this gift can help attract a high-achieving graduate student and provide him or her the same pivotal experience that I had, then it's a worthy cause."

To support graduate fellowships in Electrical and Computer Engineering or other disciplines, contact Andrea McIntyre, senior director of development, at 765-494-9945 or AJMcIntyre@prf.org.