Experiential PhD Spotlight with Nishant Yadav
Nishant Yadav, PhD interdisciplinary engineering student, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, participated in the Experiential PhD program. His research is in applying machine learning and AI to solving problems in climate and the environment. He joined CEE’s Sustainability and Data Sciences Lab at Northeastern under Professor Auroop Ganguly, and then worked at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, then NASA Ames Research Center, and is now starting work at Hitachi AI Labs.
At Northeastern University, the concept of experiential learning is the foundation of our educational philosophy. Experiential education involves offering real-world engagement in the learning process and is anchored by Northeastern’s signature co-op program. At the doctoral level, Experiential PhD is designed to offer students the opportunity to expand beyond campus into engaging assignments in industry, government, academic partners, and non-profits. For Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) student Nishant Yadav, Northeastern’s advocacy for experiential PhD has delivered unique and rewarding opportunities during his program.
Beyond the Classroom and the Lab
Yadav arrived at Northeastern in 2019 with an MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering to join Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Auroop Ganguly’s research team and pursue a PhD in Interdisciplinary Engineering. “My research is about applying machine learning and AI to solving problems in climate and the environment,” explained Yadav. Prof. Ganguly’s Sustainability and Data Sciences Laboratory (SDS), which focuses on blending climate studies, network and data science, and engineering, was a perfect fit.
Ganguly’s many connections in industry and academia led to Yadav’s first interdisciplinary experience. He began a project at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Washington state, working with Dr. Samrat Chatterjee, who is an affiliated faculty within the CEE department. “One of the earliest projects I did for Prof. Ganguly was in the area of urban infrastructure resilience under multiple disruptions,” Yadav said. That work, which studies the MBTA transit system’s response to climate-charged flooding and was extrapolated onto the London subway system, later became a published paper in Scientific Reports.
Following the work at PNNL, he landed a position at NASA’s Ames Research Center in 2020. NASA is a frequent stop for PhD students in the department, as many have interned with the agency. He arrived at NASA with an NSF INTERN grant. During his time with Ames, he began tackling a tough problem that would help him define his research interests and his dissertation topic. There, he studied the use of AI to calculate air quality of regions where ground sensors may not be available, and only satellite data could be analyzed. At the end of this internship, he took the topic he was working on with the space agency and proposed it in an application to work with Hitachi AI Labs. He starts his work there remotely this semester, where he will continue applying the AI principles of self-supervised learning for remote sensing of the environment. Yadav hopes to turn this research into a powerful method for studying climate change and air pollution. The idea, he says, is to use this emerging paradigm to unravel problems that cannot be solved using conventional data resources.
Learning through Experience
Reflecting on his PhD study so far, Yadav credits the experiential PhD philosophy with providing him a valuable learning edge. “The message I want to give is, [Northeastern’s] whole emphasis on experiential learning is wholly different than what I’ve experienced at other places,” he said. “The flavor at Northeastern is very different. This is how I think PhDs should be in current times; we are spending our time at other places doing non-academic work. This is a much better idea of doing PhD study than being locked in a lab for X amount of years.”
“One thing that I’ve experienced: you may be good at your research, but there are so many aspects of your daily work that you can only learn in action. I feel the need is critical for PhD students to go out to these organizations and pick up skills that may not be directly research related, such as how companies work, or how AI works at companies, which may be very different than how it works in research labs. It puts things in perspective, and makes you job-ready when you graduate.”
“A Northeastern PhD can be relatively unique for those students and professors who choose to take full advantage of the experiential opportunities,” said Ganguly. “The most exciting and innovative research today often happens at the intersection of traditional disciplines and through partnerships where academia engages deeply and consistently with government research institutes, the public-private sector, and with stakeholders. Nishant’s PhD at Northeastern’s SDS Lab sets a clear example: he has interned at, collaborated with, and solved problems for a US DOE National Lab (PNNL), a US federal agency (NASA), and now a private sector (Hitachi). Former SDS Lab PhD students and postdocs have usually taken similar paths and as a result have been absorbed in some of the most coveted positions within government and industry research as well as in academia, besides spawning their own startup companies.”