Agricultural and biosystems engineering professor Raj Raman puts people and education first

Raj RamanEducation has always been a passion for Raj Raman. He finished graduate school with the realization that undergraduate education was somewhat undervalued, and he knew then that he wanted to make a difference in that area.

In the eight and a half years Raman has worked at Iowa State, he’s worn many hats. He is a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering; the associate chair for teaching programs in ABE; the university education director for the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC); the education program co-director for CenUSA Bioenergy; and he’s previously served as the director of graduate education for the Biorenewable Resources and Technology program and as the associate director of educational programs for the Bioeconomy Institute.

It may sound like a lot to take on, but Raman jumps at each opportunity presented to him with a grateful attitude, saying he’s lucky to be in a position where he can make a difference.

Raman came in as an associate professor with more than 12 years of experience. He says it wasn’t necessarily in his plan to work at Iowa State University, but upon interviewing, he knew it was the right place for him.

“I fell in love with the department, and I really liked what I saw,” says Raman. “ABE is a unique, highly ranked and very large department, so the opportunity to impact more students was attractive to me.”

He was also impressed with the university’s big strides in both research and teaching—and the opportunities that come with that.

“I’m a strong believer in the land-grant mission, that idea that we conduct high-impact research, teaching and extension—all three of them,” he adds. “And Iowa State, and the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering in particular, really embody that vision.”

Soon after starting at Iowa State, Raman was asked to help create a new degree program. A framework for a program called biological systems engineering was in place, but there was much work to be done. He worked for about two years on the proposal, and it was formally approved in 2008, with the first students enrolled the following year.

Now the accredited program has grown to about 86 students, more than half of them female. Raman was motivated to launch this program because he believed it would attract more students and better serve the department’s educational mission.

Developing the new degree program is one of the things Raman says he’s most proud of in regards to his accomplishments. Another is the work he does as director of several Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs.

One of these REU sites is with CBiRC and seeks to give students experience in the CBiRC labs, some of which are at Iowa State while others are across the country in partnering universities. Their research is dedicated to finding ways of replacing petrochemicals with plant biomass in a cost-effective way. The hope is to get away from petroleum-based products and create more economically viable renewable resources.

Raman has been working with about 30 REU students this summer between CBiRC and another USDA-funded project, CenUSA Bioenergy. He meets with them regularly and says hearing about their good experiences is what really makes him happy to be involved with the program.

“It’s a challenge to provide everyone with a great experience, but honestly, this summer we’ve been very close,” he says. “To know I have a hand in organizing and directing a program that’s made so many of these students grow intellectually, grow in their vision of what they thought they could do, grow in their understanding of what it takes to be a graduate student—that’s a peak experience.”

He’s also felt that same passion toward teaching and doing outreach for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Through collaboration with Dr. Adah Leshem, the pre-college education director for CBiRC, Raman has had opportunities to work with K-12 teachers and students to promote STEM opportunities related to the bioeconomy, which has been as great of an experience for him as the students with whom he interacts.

“I enjoy expanding young minds to the opportunities involved with STEM fields,” Raman says. “Also, I think it’s easy to underestimate the challenges we put in front of our K-12 teachers. I consider it a high privilege to converse with them and brainstorm about STEM education.”