Campus remembers longtime engineering professor

Prasad Dhurjati, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and mathematical sciences at the University of Delaware, died on June 30, 2020.

University President Dennis Assanis said, “Eleni and I were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Prasad Dhurjati, an esteemed scholar and scientist, a dedicated teacher and a respected colleague and friend. His passion for education and his commitment to this University set a very high standard to which we all can aspire. The most fitting tribute to Prasad resides in the many UD students he guided and inspired over some 38 years on our campus. His spirit and soul will live in our minds and hearts forever.”

Dr. Dhurjati joined the University of Delaware faculty in 1982 after receiving his doctoral degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, in 1977.

Dr. Dhurjati was known for his scholarship in the biotechnology field and was honored with the NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award and College of Engineering Special Faculty Award in 1986 and was named to the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) in 2004.

“Prasad was one of the first people to welcome me to UD approximately 3.5 decades ago, and I learned immensely from interacting with him as I began my academic career,” said Provost Robin Morgan.  “He was always eager to step out of his boundaries and work with others on a very wide array of topics.  He once wrote to me that he made progress on interdisciplinary work ‘with undergrads, the power of ideas and very few resources!!  Indeed, Prasad was driven by the power of ideas, and his willingness to share them with everyone enriched this University beyond measure.”

Levi Thompson, dean of the College of Engineering, said, “Prasad had a very positive influence on countless students, colleagues and others during his many years at UD. Those who had the pleasure of working with him will always remember his generosity and encouragement. We will miss him greatly.”

Dr. Dhurjati took pleasure in collaborating with those in other disciplines and was often exploring how his expertise in computer modeling could advance another person’s research.

Prof. Deni Galileo, a neurobiologist, got into a project with him after a casual conversation at a Faculty Senate meeting, which both men had served as president. Dr. Dhurjati asked about Galileo’s research and suggested that they work together to better understand the spread of glioblastoma cancer cells in the brain.

“Biological details put me to sleep,” Dr. Dhurjati said at the time. “Mathematical equations put some biologists to sleep. But we all have something to contribute.”

He and his students had also worked with researchers to advance their study of osteoporosis and the human gut microbiome — the ecosystem of microbes that live in the bellies of humans and animals.

Dr. Dhurjati injected humor into many encounters and his banter with Galileo prompted one student to liken them to “an old married couple.”

“I could always look forward to an enjoyable and witty interaction whenever I had to talk to him,” Galileo wrote in an email after Dr. Dhurjati’s death. “I am thankful that I have been able to interact with him lately because of both of us being on the impact bargaining team re-negotiating with the administration to extend our contract. I hope other faculty remember all of the good and important things that Prasad did for the University and his students. He was in a class of faculty that few here belong to as far as their commitment to try to improve our University for all of its members.”

Dr. Dhurjati, left, is pictured with collaborator Deni Galileo, associate professor of biological sciences and president of the UD Chapter of AAUP.
Dr. Dhurjati, left, is pictured with collaborator Deni Galileo, associate professor of biological sciences and president of the UD Chapter of AAUP.

In a recent, wide-ranging interview with UDaily about a spring semester class he was teaching on computer modeling techniques, Dr. Dhurjati talked about the pleasure he found working with motivated students — even in the strange new “Zoom” context demanded after the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you ask me ‘why are you at a university?’ I will tell you there’s nothing that makes me happier than a student with a desire to learn,” he said. “I tell them they can ask questions forever — from 5 in the morning until midnight. Send me your questions and I will help you.

“That’s my reward — to see highly motivated students wanting to make a contribution, wanting to learn. You can’t beat it. Nothing material can beat that reward. And that’s why I’m at a university.”

Always generous with his time and encouraging of others, Dr. Dhurjati served as the 47th president of the UD Faculty Senate and held many leadership roles within the organization.

“One of his favorite mottos, which exemplifies his spirit and attitude, was ‘If you want to GO QUICKLY, GO ALONE. If you want to GO FAR, GO TOGETHER,’” shared current Faculty Senate President Charles Boncelet, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Dr. Dhurjati left a lasting legacy on many friends, students and colleagues. Just a few weeks before Dr. Dhurjati passed, Mark Shiflett, a UD alumnus and current Foundation Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas, wrote the late professor the following e-mail:

“Dear Prasad, you made a major impact on my career and are the reason I love teaching so much. Co-teaching Junior and Senior laboratory with you from 2011-2016 was a privilege and I learned a lot about how to teach students by just observing and listening to you. The lab structure you put together works great and our students at the University of Kansas have benefited from using the same lab model you established. Thank you for taking the time to work with me when I met you in 2001.  I still remember our first day in your office. I was actually nervous that I would not be able to keep up with you. 😊”

Dr. Dhurjati’s response:

“Thanks for your very kind words. I hope that I am deserving of them. I just love interacting with students. Their love and passion for learning is what inspires me and keeps me energized and alive.”

The members of the Class of 2021 in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering wrote a letter to the department to express their condolences. An excerpt follows: “In just the brief span of three years, Dr. Dhurjati made an impression on many of our lives. During his time at the University, he impacted the lives of many of the faculty and alumni that walked through the doors of Colburn Lab. He will be greatly missed by the students, faculty, friends and family whose lives he touched. Though the path ahead will be difficult without him, we know that he would want us to keep moving forward, be curious and work towards solving tomorrow’s problems.”

The Prasad S. Dhurjati Undergraduate Support Fund has been created to support undergraduate students and student research in the College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Make a gift today in memory of Dr. Dhurjati.

Remembering Dr. Dhurjati

‘Prasad’s spirit will always be with us’

“Prasad and I were both graduate students at Purdue, but in different departments, and did not meet until later when I interviewed at UD in 1987. We immediately found many common interests from teaching philosophy to world affairs. His research was always centered on mathematical modeling, but evolved significantly over time from fault diagnosis in plant operations to novel analyses of biological phenomena. In recent years, he was particularly fascinated with a possible link between the gut microbiome and autism, a research area that he pioneered. Prasad was exceptionally outgoing, engaging with students, staff, faculty and administrators. His office was often packed with undergraduate students with whom he was passionately discussing research, not only on weekdays, but on weekends, too. He had a unique sense of humor that always kept us amused and he loved to play devil’s advocate in any controversial discussion.  He joined our family for countless meals out, usually trying, with little resistance, to get us to choose an Indian restaurant. Prasad’s spirit will always be with us.”  —Doug Buttrey, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering

‘A visionary member of the team’

“Prasad was a great friend to the students and faculty of mathematical sciences, and to the University in general, and he will be sorely missed. He regularly taught for us, and we were proud to count him as a member of our faculty through a joint appointment.  I first met him in a project to create what would become our interdisciplinary Quantitative Biology program. He was a visionary member of the team and a persuasive advocate for the program and quantitative biology in general.” — Lou Rossi, chair of the Department of Mathematical Sciences

‘One of the most sincere people I’ve ever met’

“Prasad was one of those faculty members at UD who, regardless of the vast separation of our academic disciplines, took intense personal interest in the work of others. He was an internationalist — fascinated by political, cultural and social events around the world — and he made a point to reach out to discuss those topics with me repeatedly through the years. Likewise, he proved able to explain to a nonscientist like me the political implications of the work he was doing in chemical engineering, which drew me into his sphere in unexpected ways. Prasad was one of the most sincere people I’ve ever met. I’m very sorry to see him go.” —Ralph Begleiter, Rosenberg Professor of Communication Emeritus

‘He had a great appreciation of people’

“I met Prasad 33 years ago when I first arrived in Newark. He was very good at making connections with people. His passion was to convince you to go out for lunch with him and discuss research, University and philosophize about life. He did not have a family in this country so he always considered UD community as his family. He had a great appreciation of people. He was a good listener and a good talker. It is hard to imagine that he is gone and not somewhere talking with someone.” –Suresh Advani, George W. Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering

‘An enlightened perspective and a great sense of humor’

Last Tuesday [June 30] was a day of irreplaceable loss for UD, AAUP-U and for me personally. Prasad was an extraordinary teacher, a great researcher and someone who provided exemplary service to this University. He was a vital member of the AAUP-UD, a highly regarded former Faculty Senate president and a good friend. He had a passion for transparency and shared governance that was unrivaled. I always looked forward to talking with him because he always had an enlightened perspective and a great sense of humor that often was self-effacing and modest, despite his many accomplishments.  I feel very fortunate to have worked with him under so many different circumstances, including the Faculty Senate Report on Responsibility Based Budgeting, AAUP-UD faculty contract negotiations and even mathematical modeling of my brain cancer research. Prasad was a wonderful human being who was anything but unidimensional.” –Deni Galileo, associate professor of biological sciences and president of the UD Chapter of AAUP

‘Eternal optimism and perennial curiosity’

“The main thing that characterized Prasad was his eternal optimism and perennial curiosity for anything that had to do with science and engineering. The very first phrase that he used when meeting you was ‘What is new and exciting?’ He was full of new ideas, many of which several years before they become popular: AI (Artificial Intelligence): He was one of the early users of it (through its more proper name: expert systems) in the analysis of the operation of plants trying to detect faults well before they occur thus potentially avoiding major disasters and deaths (FALCON project, in connection with a local distillation plant); modeling of biochemical processes and most recently modeling of microbial systems. Regarding this last one, there were few people that believed him when he started spreading the idea that the microbiome in the intestinal tract can influence the brain and in particular autism disorders; still now seems something that is very common thinking, to the extent that we do not appreciate the courage that it takes to promote such a revolutionary for its time idea.  Above all he was a fervent proponent of modeling and mathematical analysis and simulation, in all areas of science, and in particular for biological systems. He believed fervently that data unless coupled with models and analysis are of little value. He communicated those ideas with his colleagues but primarily with students, especially undergraduates on the occasion of several elective courses that he organized (in systems biology more recently) and he was one of the contributors to the program in mathematical biology at UD with the Department of Mathematical Sciences. His interaction with the students was unique. He loved to work with them in a personal basis through group projects and it was rare to find him in his office alone—most of the time he would also take all available chairs from mine (adjacent to his) and he will be deeply involved explain to the students his ideas—not only that, but he was quite prolific in publications jointly with undergraduate students. He knew his students very well establishing personal relations many of which lasted well after their graduation. I am sure that he will be missed by them. May he rest in peace.” — Antony Beris, Arthur B. Metzner Professor of Chemical Engineering

‘Worked to ensure the success of those around him’

“Exceedingly few individuals devote themselves to their communities as much as Prof. Prasad Dhurjati devoted himself to the University of Delaware. I have known him for 25 years, as he was my professor during my undergraduate years in chemical engineering at UD, and he was my colleague when I became a professor in the very same department. At every level, he worked to ensure the success of those around him. As a mentor to undergraduates and graduate students, he afforded every student the opportunity to perform original, independent research. He encouraged all students to publish their work, attend conferences and gain external recognition, no matter whether they were young undergraduates or advanced graduate students. He showed students that a solid foundation in chemical engineering requires a solid foundation in mathematics, and he was an excellent teacher. He even allowed students to pursue original projects within their core coursework. He totally embraced the idea that any individual can be an innovator. Once students graduated from the University, he actively kept in touch with alumni and continued to work with them on innovative projects. As a colleague within the department, he encouraged others to seek leadership positions and pursue unique collaborations. As a citizen of the University, he served the Faculty Senate with complete dedication and became president of the Faculty Senate, providing a voice for all faculty in University decisions. He pursued joint projects with faculty in mathematics, biology, electrical engineering, biochemistry and even philosophy. As a member of the global chemical engineering community, he maintained research collaborations with India, France, Canada and the United Kingdom, just to name a few. He was internationally respected. Very few faculty can say that they contributed to research in fields as diverse as composite materials, paper processing, education, protein production, autism, cancer, cardiovascular medicine and infectious disease, but Prof. Dhurjati did all of these things, because he recognized that methodical, robust engineering analysis could be applied to any problem, any challenge. He even applied his engineering skills to maintain the vitality of the University of Delaware, which he did in spades. I was proud to call him both my professor and later my colleague. Prof. Prasad Dhurjati was recognized with some of the highest honors in his field, including the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award and a fellowship in the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, but more importantly, he was a constant, smiling, jubilant presence in Colburn Laboratory and around the entire campus. Prof. Prasad Dhurjati was courageous, inspired and entirely dedicated in all that he did. He selflessly threw his complete heart and soul into his research, teaching and service. UD will not be the same without him, yet his impact, the seeds that he planted both at UD and worldwide, will be felt for decades.” –Sujata Bhatia, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering