First-generation student’s love for education pushes her to get PhD

pr'outAs a first-generation college student, Kahni Pr’Out says both she and her parents always knew she would go on to pursue a higher degree. Now in the midst of her Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering, she’s getting ready to start a job in industry.

After completing her undergraduate degree in math at Savannah State University in Georgia, Pr’Out first experienced Iowa State in 2010 when she came to campus to participate in a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

The oldest of four children, Pr’Out’s mother worked at a bank and was good at math, while her father was a consultant engineer. “The math and science aspect wasn’t pushed in my house, but it was always there,” says Pr’Out.

Pr’Out went through the math department for her first two years here, but transferred to engineering, saying she was still connected with mechanical engineering faculty and staff from her REU experience, including Assistant Professor Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, who has since become her major professor.

During grad school, at the suggestion of her professors, Pr’Out did two REU programs—one at Iowa State and one at a university in Louisiana. She believes those programs give students a more in-depth learning experience and set them up for better futures.

“I didn’t know about the opportunities in research or how science was applied,” she says. “I never thought of experiments and research in terms of engineering.”

Now, she’s exploring ways to make heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems more efficient. Her research analyzes the placement of sensors that communicate an area’s temperature to the main system. They are also looking for an ideal number of sensors to best control temperature.

“Right now, about 40% of costs for maintaining a building goes into heating and cooling,” she explains. “If you can reduce energy consumption, it saves money, but more importantly, it’s great for the environment.”

Her interest in buildings isn’t restricted to the functionality of them, though—Pr’Out also has an interest in architecture, and she says being in engineering allows her to explore that option in the design of buildings as well.

Pr’Out’s choice to pursue her higher education at Iowa State has led to many opportunities and experiences—and it’s just another way she’s exceeded her parents’ expectations for her own learning. “I really liked the people I worked with when I got to Iowa State,” she says. “There are so many things to do here, and there’s a lot of access to technology, including labs and computer labs—all the amenities are nice.

“When I was younger, I always knew I wanted to get the most education I possibly could. My parents always saw me getting something higher than a bachelor’s degree. They would definitely say I am determined.”