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Doctoral student Prashant Ramesh (left) received the 2020 George W. Laird Fellowship. The award was presented to him by Margaret Laird, the daughter of the late George Laird and mother Ann Wick.
Doctoral student Prashant Ramesh (left) received the 2020 George W. Laird Fellowship. The award was presented to him by Margaret Laird, the daughter of the late George Laird and Ann Wick.

Quantum dots and classic rock

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson

Engineering doctoral student recognized

Prashant Ramesh is living out his childhood dreams.

As a kid, Ramesh devoured books about modern physics and idolized Albert Einstein. He took piano lessons and singing lessons and listened to classic rock with his father. 

Today, as a doctoral student in the University of Delaware Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Ramesh uses the principles of modern physics to study quantum dots, tiny nanoscale semiconductors that could someday enable faster computing, more precise medical imaging technologies and more. Outside the lab, he plays guitar in a band composed of fellow engineering students. 

For his well-rounded contributions to the College of Engineering and his potential to make an impact on the world, Ramesh was selected as the 2020 winner of the Laird Fellowship, an annual award that helps one first-year engineering graduate student at the University of Delaware pursue interests beyond his or her field of study. 

From the lab to the stage

Ramesh does cutting-edge research in UD’s Nanofabrication Facility, which features a cleanroom environment where scientists can make tiny devices smaller than the width of a human hair. Ramesh is co-advised by Matt Doty, professor of materials science and engineering, physics, and electrical and computer engineering, and Joshua Zide, professor of materials science and engineering. 

Ramesh’s research intrigues him deeply, harkening back to his early days of reading biographies of famous physicists. “On a very practical side, being in the cleanroom is a lot of fun,” he said. “I like tinkering with things, working with equipment and getting things to work a certain way, and so this is just that at an extremely cutting-edge level. On the more theoretical side, I've always been really curious about quantum physics, and it's just so interesting how things at a small scale diverge from all properties that we see at a macro scale.”

The researchers are using a technique called molecular beam epitaxy, which allows you to deposit materials in very thin (atomic scale) layers to create semiconductor devices. Another graduate student primarily grows the materials, and Ramesh fabricates devices and does optical characterization — using lasers and other components to examine the material’s properties.

UD’s resources in this area drew Ramesh to Delaware. He did undergraduate research in quantum materials at Penn and has industry experience working on novel solar devices. “I was looking for schools that had invested a lot into nanotech and fabrication, because I knew that I wanted to do that kind of work, so I searched for schools that have really nice, robust nanofabrication and characterization centers,” he said. 

Another thing Ramesh wanted to pursue? His passion for music.  

“Music has been a big part of my life, but in very different ways throughout different phases of my life,” said Ramesh.

Doctoral student and 2020 George W. Laird Fellowship winner Prashant Ramesh enjoys playing guitar in his spare time.
Doctoral student and 2020 George W. Laird Fellowship winner Prashant Ramesh enjoys playing guitar in his spare time.

Growing up, Ramesh studied Carnatic singing, a classical Indian musical genre. When he attended the University of Pennsylvania for his undergraduate studies, he joined Penn Masala, a premier South Asian a cappella singing group. With Penn Masala, Ramesh performed all over the world and even appeared in the movie Pitch Perfect 2, where the group sang “Any Way You Want It” by Journey. 

After graduating from Penn, where he received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in materials science and engineering, Ramesh started playing guitar just about every day. He also writes some of his own songs. 

Ramesh joined UD in fall 2019, and at a materials science and engineering department get-together, he connected with the members of a student-led band playing at the event. He asked if he could jam with them, and before long, they had invited him to join the band. They practice about once a week.

The Legacy of the Laird Fellowship

Ramesh joins a long list of accomplished, well-rounded engineers as this year’s winner of the Laird Fellowship. 

The George W. Laird Merit Fellowship is given to honor the memory of George W. Laird, who earned a bachelor of arts degree at Hamilton College in 1964 and then attended the University of Delaware, where he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with highest honors in 1968 and a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1971. On Sept. 6, 1977, at the age of 35, George W. Laird was killed in a tragic accident.

Laird Fellows are selected for balanced excellence, demonstrating intellectual capability and qualities such as character, maturity, sense of humor, creativity, ingenuity, and imagination, coupled with practical skills, perseverance, and the common sense necessary to execute ideas, according to the selection committee.

The Laird Fellowships differs from traditional grants and is unique among graduate student awards. Past winners stay in touch through regular events. They’re like a family. 

“In a way, the Laird Fellowship is kind of reflective of a lot of the things that I love about UD,” said Ramesh. “And what I mean by that is, first of all, the fellowship itself is very unique and is meant to encourage students’ interests outside of engineering, which is not something you typically see. And I think that's reflective of the fact that UD really encourages the holistic growth and development of students.”

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