Virginia Tech Magazine
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Romesh Batra: The measure of success   


The collision was offset from the center by 1.2 millimeters, the Ph.D. student said, but noted that the authors of the paper he was citing didn't explain whether the offset was along the X axis or the Y axis or both.

This omission wasn't an issue for Romesh Batra as he listened to the presentation by one of a half-dozen advisees, all but one of them Ph.D. students, during his regular Friday advising session in Norris Hall. The problem for the world-renowned materials-behavior expert--described by his students as "strict," "tough," and "challenging"--was that the student hadn't contacted the authors to learn the direction of the offset.

In Batra's precise world, 1.2 millimeters might as well be a mile.

"Yes, I should've done that," the student conceded. "[But] it could've taken three or four days."

"It could've taken three or four minutes," Batra said, calmly coaching.

Batra points to a concept his mentor impressed upon him: that a teacher's success is measured by student success. In nomination materials for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia's (SCHEV) 2010 Outstanding Faculty Award, Batra explained that in Eastern cultures, some measure the success of parents raising children in the same way. Accordingly, he teaches with the realization "that all of us are blessed with equal intelligence, and everyone has special skills."

"He knows he's strict," said Joseph Callahan, an advisee pursuing a master's degree in aerospace engineering. "Because he's demanding, he's right there with you. Because you've defended it to him, he'll defend you to other people."

For 35 years--including the past 15 at Virginia Tech--Batra has pushed his students to excel. Their success is his greatest satisfaction. "It's really transferring knowledge to younger people, and graduating some of the very brightest students," Batra said. "I've been more lucky than I thought I'd be. I think that's true."

Luck, perhaps, but consider the intangibles. As an undergraduate, Batra attended India's Thapar College of Engineering, living with his older brother in a large city rather than with his parents in their small hometown since the nearest college was 15 miles away from his parents' house. To help with expenses, he tutored his neighbor's children in return for home-cooked meals.

He received a graduate research assistantship from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and his interest in continuum mechanics led him to The Johns Hopkins University for doctoral studies. There he discovered a certain mental agility that allowed him to quickly assimilate concepts outside his immediate discipline and apply them to his own work. This gift, along with a work ethic that often spurred him to rise at 4 a.m. to begin working from home, means that the applied mechanician and mathematician who ended up in material behavior has few peers in his field.

"If we are asked to choose the three most distinguished researchers in the area of engineering mechanics who have made the most impact in the field during the past two decades, Dr. Batra, in my opinion, will make this list. His research shows creativity, relevance, and diversity," said the University of Maryland's Alfred Gresso Professor Inderjit Chopra in the SCHEV nomination materials.

Batra has led teams that improved the design of different types of armors such as bullet-proof vests, tank walls, and shields to protect vehicles against improvised explosive devices. He has characterized carbon nanotubes for designing lighter and more-fuel-efficient planes. He has studied micro-electro-mechanical systems that open up car air bags and smart materials that monitor their own vibrations and make car rides quieter and smoother.

Not surprisingly, the paper trail is astounding. Batra's publication rate of 15 refereed journal articles per year is five times the average in the College of Engineering. He was recently selected for inclusion on because of his exceptional citation count in the field, a honor shared with less than one-half of 1 percent of all publishing authors.

The history of his discipline may be at his fingertips, but the unknown future is what keeps him going. Asked about the last time he was confounded by a problem, Batra had an unexpected answer.

"It happens every time," he said. "The kinds of problems keep on changing. It really happens every day. Otherwise, life would be boring."

Lynn Nystrom, director of news and external relations for the College of Engineering, contributed to this article.

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Fall 2010
Romesh Batra, Clifton C. Garvin Professor, Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics

• Clifton C. Garvin Professor, Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics
• World-renowned researcher in the strength of materials under explosive loads, e.g., lightweight armor for soldiers and Humvees
• Teaches courses in continuum mechanics, finite element methods, nonlinear elasticity
• Ph.D., mechanics and materials science, The Johns Hopkins University; M.S., mechanical engineering, University of Waterloo, Canada; B.S., mechanical engineering, Thapar University, India.

• 2010 Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award, sponsored by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and Dominion, an energy company
• 2009 Engineering Science Medal, Society of Engineering Science, for his singular work on material failure
• 2009 Lee Hsun Research Award, Chinese Academy of Sciences, for his work on understanding material behavior under explosive loads
• 2000 Eric Reissner Medal, International Congress of Computational and Engineering Society, for his fundamental work in simulating the penetration of a missile into a tank wall
• 1992 Alexander von Humboldt Award for his pioneering work in developing an understanding of the failure of materials due to extreme loads