Author: Barrett Elder

Sandhiya Thiagarajan standing in classroom

Shaping the Future with Sandhiya Thiagarajan

Sandhiya standing in the Koh Laboratory
Sandhiya standing in the Koh Laboratory, Shot by Matthew Wood

“What if I told you concepts in Marvel movies can exist today?”

These are the first words out of Sandhiya Thiagarajan’s mouth when asked about her cutting-edge research with Dr. Amanda Koh, Assistant Professor for chemical and biological engineering. Sandhiya, originally from the beach town of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, first met Dr. Koh in 2019 at a recruiting event in her home country.

Drawn to Dr. Koh’s influential passion for women in STEM, Sandhiya left the gorgeous beaches, temples, culture and home to pursue a PhD from The University of Alabama under Dr. Koh’s mentorship.

Dr. Koh operates the Koh Laboratory, a laboratory in the illustrious Shelby Hall named in her likeness. The Koh Laboratory focuses on engineering soft materials and material interfaces to enable new stretchable electronics, soft robotics, smart devices and porous materials. The lab emphasizes that as the needs and applications of devices in these areas become more complex and advanced, it is no longer enough to rely on single-function, bulk materials. By harnessing the unique capabilities provided by interfaces, the Koh Laboratory designs smart, responsive, multifunctional materials that are key to creating robust, practical and adaptive systems.

True to the nature of the Koh Laboratory, Sandhiya focuses on saving lives through her research of magnetic smart liquids. Suspended in an oil-like substance, these revolutionary liquids harden into a dense, peanut-butter-like material when activated and reset back to their original form when not in use. The odd traits of smart liquids make them seem other-worldly, or even out of a Marvel Movie. The goal of Sandhiya’s research is to find a way to make smart liquids stable and rust-free for longer so they can be used for stabilizing buildings during earthquakes.

Sandhiya’s research is particularly interesting considering India’s history with earthquakes. Just last year, Chennai, India was hit by an earthquake which is just one in a long line of earthquakes that have hit India ranging from devastating to relatively minor. India sits on a tectonic plate which leads to a high frequency and intensity of earthquakes, but earthquakes wreak havoc globally with very few recent inventions to prevent structural damage.

Because of Dr. Koh and The University of Alabama, Sandhiya could revolutionize earthquake protection. The liquids have been around since the early 2000s. The magnetorheological fluids

can be found in the suspension of the 2002 model of the Cadillac Seville STS and more recently, in the suspension of the second-generation Audi TT. Many have theorized that using these fluids for earthquakes as a damper system would work, but the scale and staying power that Sandhiya is moving towards could soon make that dream a reality. Sandhiya has published two research papers alongside Dr. Koh during her tenure on campus that focus on her research on magnetorheological fluids.

“They should be in the building for 10-20 years.” she mentioned, “I cannot walk in and say, ‘please move your building because I need to change the liquid.’”

Sandhiya working in the Koh Laboratory
Sandhiya working in the Koh Laboratory, Shot by Matthew Wood

Since enrolling at The University of Alabama, Sandhiya has done nothing but rave about her experience so far. From “the best lab” she has ever worked in, to the weather and the people she’s met, Sandhiya said, “I have only experienced the best at UA. Not great, not good, the best.” She goes on to talk about the faculty and staff and mentions, “people here are so kind and want you to succeed. They are great at listening and helping you with anything you need.”

When asked about her future, Sandhiya, like many others, has not quite decided. She said, “maybe stay at UA and teach or stay close to Alabama. I love the environment here and the people so much.” She closed the conversation with a note to people interested in the University by saying “Come experience it for yourself. You’ll feel yourself at home and grow yourself here.”

Taking on Capitol Hill with Cameryn Blackmore

Cameryn Blackmore standing with the sky behind her in a superhero pose
Photo Credit: Matthew Wood, Strategic Communications

TUSCALOOSA, Ala., Jan 13, 2021Cameryn Blackmore is on the go. She is probably traveling as you read this. As she sat down for her interview, she had just returned to Tuscaloosa from her hometown in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and would hop on a flight to Washington, D.C. soon after we finished. Born to lead, Cameryn received her PhD in political science from The University of Alabama in December 2021 and has already taken on Capitol Hill in D.C.

Confidence exudes from Cameryn as she discusses her new normal. She recently accepted a fellowship position with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation under the National Racial Equity Initiative Fellowship. “I have huge shoes to fill,” Cameryn mentioned. “This fellowship is named in the memory of Congressman John R. Lewis, who was essential to the civil rights movement.”

The first month of her fellowship involves working in U.S. Representative Marilyn Strickland’s office as a legislative assistant and will spend the second month doing research for the foundation. As she opened up about the fellowship, Cameryn said, “I love this opportunity because it gives me a chance to get exposed to policy, but also lets me maintain my identity as a scholar.”

This is just the second year for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to have this fellowship position, and they are relying on Cameryn and her peers to grow the program from within. The fellowship is heavily interested in connecting people with the foundation and ensuring the lives of black citizens are being elevated on the federal level. They plan to host events throughout the year and currently host a yearly summit that focuses on criminal justice, healthcare, economic development and education. “Next year, town hall meetings will be hosted across the country to have conversations about what needs to be addressed at the national level,” Cameryn said.

It makes sense that part of Cameryn’s new role is connecting people together. Her network is one of the biggest pieces of Cameryn’s story. Her ambition is infectious, and she seems to create a sphere of influence wherever she goes. “I tell all incoming grad students and I tell all undergrad students that are interested in grad school and even in their careers – build a community,” she said.

Cameryn began networking before she even officially stepped foot on campus. She visited The University of Alabama to see her sister, who was a student. On a whim, she stopped by the political science office and realized this was the place she wanted to be. She constantly credits the people around her for her success as well. Cameryn mentioned, “Always knowing that I had a support system that I could lean back on was very important in making sure that I matriculated through the process successfully.”

“Everyone thinks the university is so big, and it is, but the circles overlap so much so you can meet one person who’s connected to another person,” Cameryn said. “These people may help you fund your degree or may help you get onto a research project.”

Her circles led to an impressive resume during her tenure at the university. She was a member of the African American Graduate Student Association, a Southern Board of Education Scholar, on the Graduate Student Association Executive Board and a valuable member of the Tide Together program.

Cameryn finished with some advice. “Getting your PhD is hard no matter where you go because you’re making the transition from being a consumer of knowledge to being a producer of knowledge,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need because you’re full of pride and be the answer for someone when they need help.”

These two mantras have helped her establish an incredible network, and her impressive work ethic has vaulted her to where she is today. Cameryn is not sure what is next for her after her fellowship ends, but one thing is for sure – her next step will be remarkable.

Jeremy Smith sitting at a grand piano holding a pencil, seemingly pondering his next composition

Bookmarks in the Life of Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith sitting at a grand piano holding a pencil, seemingly pondering his next composition
Photo Credit: Matthew Wood, Strategic Communications

TUSCALOOSA, Ala., Nov 2, 2021 一 Jeremy Smith has a unique way of weaving a story. Recently, Jeremy sat at a coffee shop recounting the story of his life. Over an hour, he divulged a remarkable retrospective of perseverance, empowerment and insatiable drive. The story is hypnotic and winding, and just as suddenly as you realize you’re off the path, Jeremy will pin it to a decisive moment in the grand story. Or, as he likes to call them, bookmarks.

Jeremy arrived on campus at The University of Alabama in August pursuing his doctoral degree in music composition. He brings with him an incredible professional history, having already studied under heavily decorated professors, took part in highly competitive residencies and has already created works that, in a vacuum, would place his career considerably ahead of schedule. The works range from a ballet to a mass to a pocket opera, and more marching band arrangements than he can count.

These accomplishments are remarkable on their own, but to fully appreciate them, you must start from the beginning.

The northwest tip of Alabama is home to an area known as “The Shoals,” which comprises three small towns tucked along the banks of the winding Tennessee River. The Shoals have a knack for inspiring talented musicians, and locals have made a habit of mentioning there must be something in the water. Legends such as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and Paul Simon can attribute some of their success to recording their greatest hits in this tiny corner of Alabama. Jeremy grew up in Tuscumbia, Alabama, the smallest of the three towns, and graduated from Muscle Shoals High School, where he admits he wasn’t a great student. However, his high school was a titan in the concert percussion world, and Jeremy flourished within the program.

“I had a year and a half long stretch where I didn’t pass a single class.”

Right across the river, The Shoals is also home to the oldest university in Alabama, where Jeremy found himself after he graduated high school.

“Undergrad was…long,” Jeremy said. Likely because he stretched it over an eight year period. Jeremy enrolled in college in fall 2010, seeking a degree in music education. He finished his first semester with a 0.27 GPA.

His second semester wasn’t better. He continued to forgo classes and assignments. Jeremy said, “I had a year and a half long stretch where I didn’t pass a single class or, it’s closer to two years I didn’t pass a single class at all.” The university allowed community members to join their marching band, therefore in the fall of his sophomore year, Jeremy decided to only participate in marching band before re-enrolling in the spring semester.

In what felt like his last chance, Jeremy returned to school under academic probation and took on part-time status taking Physics 101 along with concert percussion in spring 2012. It cost him $3,000. Unfortunately, no motivation followed him back to college. Jeremy noted, “I didn’t go to class at all and didn’t do any of my homework, and my professor pulled me aside and said ‘You’ve missed too many classes to pass this course at this point. I’ll give you one more shot, but if you miss one more class, I’m going to fail you.’”

It was the wake-up call Jeremy needed. For the first time, Jeremy felt like he rounded a corner and really committed himself to accomplishing a passing grade. “What seemed like the entire semester for me was more like four weeks,” he said. “I did all the homework, went to all the classes, I started doing well. Until we had a test and I overslept and missed it, and he failed me.”

“I was basically squatting in a house with no power.”

During this time, Jeremy lived in a house near campus with one of his best friends. The homeowner was in Afghanistan serving in the military, and the owner’s brother oversaw the property. The house wasn’t for rent and had been empty for years, but Jeremy and his friend liked it and begged the brother to let them rent it. Jeremy recalled, “The front door was the only way to get in. There was a back door, but it was boarded up, and I was in the back of the house, so if there was a fire or something, then I would’ve been dead.”

Jeremy’s lack of motivation started creeping into other parts of his life. He and his friend stopped paying rent, and one cold day in December the power went out. “I was basically squatting in a house with no power,” he said. “We hadn’t paid rent in like four months and (the landlord) just never really said anything. I would charge my laptop at school and then come back home and would watch Netflix on my neighbor’s Wi-Fi under every blanket I owned until I fell asleep. It was rough.”

When his spring semester of sophomore year ended, Jeremy had already chosen to not make payments on his loan and he failed Physics 101. He also failed his sophomore percussion proficiency exams. With music being the forefront of his life, things were looking grim.

In the coffee shop Jeremy paused and took a sip of coffee, reflecting on one of the most pivotal moments in his life. “When I failed all of those classes and flunked out of school, I also owed the school $3,000,” Jeremy said. “It became an almost insurmountable thing for me because I had never had $3,000 before in my entire life.”

With little in front of him following that semester, Jeremy was sitting on a ripped couch, squatting in a house with no power, failing out of school for the second time and in insurmountable debt. He then received a letter from the university letting him know he wasn’t welcome back. Jeremy recalled, “That’s the moment where I realized ‘I’m going to have to figure something out.’ And I was crying. I just didn’t realize the consequences of the things I had done until all of them hit me all at once.” Bookmark.

Jeremy is facing the piano now, writing on empty parchment paper sitting where music would normally sit.
Photo credit: Matthew Wood: Strategic Communications

“I call it the moment when I decided to start tucking my shirt in.”

Jeremy’s resolve was compounded even more when he saw a visual representation of the many emotions he was feeling. He watched the movie “Jobs,” a biographical drama of former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs. Jeremy explains that the move scored a 28% on Rotten Tomatoes and was “wildly disappointing,” but one scene in which Jobs reacts to a shallow point in his life by tucking his shirt in violently resonated with Jeremy.

“To me, that said, ‘OK, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this seriously,’” Jeremy said. “That moment on the couch is when I decided to figure things out. I call it the moment when I decided to start tucking my shirt in.” After that, pieces slowly started to come together, and the determination started kicking in.

The summer of 2012, a few weeks after getting kicked out of college, Jeremy had the opportunity to continue his marching career through Drum Corps International: “Marching Music’s Major League” in Nashville, Tennessee. In debt and with no direction, Jeremy decided to back away from this opportunity and return home to figure out how to put the pieces back together. “It was one of the hardest decisions I had ever made at that point, but it ended up being absolutely crucial,” Jeremy said. Bookmark.

The corps director found Jeremy a position with a high school down the road from Nashville in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. After teaching band camp, Jeremy was offered a job teaching the drumline for the rest of the season. With college on hold, he accepted and moved to Murfreesboro.

Jeremy began to develop a new resolve. “I’m the guy that everyone thinks is funny, but this isn’t getting me anywhere, and that can’t be my identity, and that can’t be who I am,” he said. “It was a long process for me to learn how to take things seriously.”

Following that band season, Jeremy moved back to Florence, back into the house near campus. This time, the power was on, the rent was paid and he had a new roommate.

In spring 2014, two years after getting kicked out of college, Jeremy re-enrolled. He also started teaching a drumline an hour and a half north of Florence. “Suddenly, I was making $30 an hour so I could pay off my debt and pay for college,” Jeremy said.

The excitement was mounting, and Jeremy was tenacious in his efforts. Jeremy traveled back and forth between work and school for three years and became a model student, making the dean’s list nearly every semester. Nearing the end of his undergraduate career, Jeremy was itching to return to Tennessee full time and decided to take every in-person class required in one semester.

While driving to and from work in Tennessee, Jeremy took 23 hours of courses, including two 500-level philosophy classes, two science classes with labs and a senior recital for percussion. Against many of his peer’s recommendations, he also decided to finance, produce and premiere a ballet.

“I’d reached this point in my life, this is where I started, and this will be a bookmark in my life,” he said about the ballet. “I’m going to put this here, and I was really hellbent on doing that.”

“I felt like Steph Curry. I was draining it from half court, and I really felt like I couldn’t miss.”

The ballet was more successful than he could have imagined. “The Singularity: A Modern Ballet” premiered in April 2017 to two sold-out crowds that paid for the project. More important, the exposure Jeremy received from it was worth its weight in gold. He was immediately asked to write a piece for the Shoals Chamber Singers and he offered to write them a mass.

“A mass, like a ballet, is a major work that many composers strive to do,” Jeremy said. “A lot of the composers that I admire have done one. So, I decided at 24 that it’s a good time for me to make that mark.”

Jeremy also started getting more commissions for high school marching band shows than he could take on. “I felt like Steph Curry,” he said. “I was draining it from half-court, and I really felt like I couldn’t miss. It was a really rough semester, but a really triumphant one as well.” Bookmark.

Jeremy spent his last semester online living in Murfreesboro, where he ultimately received a head teaching job with a marching band. After failing out of college with a 0.27 grade-point average, Jeremy finished with a 3.98 GPA.

Jeremy’s unfaltering spirit that took off his final year of undergrad still hasn’t stopped.

Things didn’t slow down in graduate school. To keep up with demand, Jeremy founded Southcoast Music and Design, focused on delivering world-class marching arts packages. The company is growing to this day and remains a part of Jeremy’s long-term career plans. Jeremy mentioned, “When I got to grad school, I was at a point where my work was speaking for itself.”

At the end of his master’s program, life was chaotic for Jeremy. He attended classes in Murfreesboro, taught percussion in Nashville and lived in Florence, while working at a radio station and holding a graduate assistantship and continued to build his company. He spent his Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in Alabama and his Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in Tennessee.

Jeremy holds a baton, ready to command the orchestra
Photo credit: Matthew Wood, Strategic Communications

After another sip of coffee, Jeremy pivots the story.

“Growing up, we were always big Alabama fans,” Jeremy said. “My parents had a framed portrait of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant above their bed, but the university was a place where other people went.”

Jeremy is the first college graduate in his family, but since graduating, his mother has finished a degree, and his brother is well on his way. After building up his curriculum vitae, Jeremy had an abundance of universities vying for an opportunity to name him their doctoral candidate. In the end, it all came down to a Zoom call one late Friday night with Dr. Amir Zaheri, the Associate Director of the School of Music at UA.

Jeremy recalled, “Dr. Zaheri met with me at 8 p.m. on a Friday night and talked with me for two hours. How important, and valued, and accepted I felt after those two hours… I was sold on Bama.” Bookmark.

After leaving lessons with other highly regarded professors, Jeremy realized that the Capstone was his home. With the help of Dr. Zaheri, Jeremy arrived on campus at The University of Alabama a few months ago, in 2021, in pursuit of his doctoral degree in music composition. Empowered and dedicated, he has already hit the ground running with commissions coming in left and right.

“It’s crazy,” Jeremy said. “Within a few weeks of me starting, I got asked to do a piece for the Southeastern Tuba and Euphonium Conference, the National Saxophone Conference, a piece for the concert band and quite a few more. I’ve had to start saying no to things. These are major opportunities that have either come through UA or because I’m at UA.”

Jeremy is also teaching as an adjunct professor, working with the Million Dollar Band and working on academic compositions.

“It’s this beautiful pocket of talent and passion and acceptance and a great place to be.”

As Jeremy finished his coffee, he reflected on where he’s at. “I think it’s important to note that while I did a lot of this myself, there were people along the way that helped,” he said. “I have been so lucky to have strong people who believed in me, even back then.”

Because of his mentors, Jeremy plans to teach at a university when he is done with his studies. His hope is to inspire and help people through their most formative time. Jeremy went on to explain, “I think my experiences and things that I’ve gone through are not something that most college professors have been through. So, I’m uniquely qualified to teach and do that and understand from a different standpoint, and I want to use my experiences to help others.”

Finally, Jeremy closed the conversation with encouragement to anyone considering The University of Alabama for a graduate degree. “Don’t underestimate Tuscaloosa,” he said. “Tuscaloosa is this beautiful pocket of talent and passion and acceptance and a great place to be.”

An incredible journey has brought Jeremy Smith to The University of Alabama. His grit and determination will take him even further. While unsure of where life will take him next, one thing is for sure, nothing will stop Jeremy from reaching his next bookmark.


Footnote: Since this article was published, Jeremy Smith has gone on to receive full funding for his PhD.

Image of Mingtai Chen in a computer lab with glowing red light surrounding him

Looking Beyond the Mountains

Image of Mingtai Chen in a computer lab with glowing red light surrounding him
Mingtai Chen

Mingtai recalls when he was younger, he would always ask his parents, “What is behind the mountains?” Born in the village of Hejiaba in Sichuan Province of China, Mingtai Chen (PhD, Spring ’21) always had his eyes focused beyond the horizon. The tiny village sits on the banks of the Yangtze River and is surrounded by towering mountains covered in dense green forests. With only one way in and out of the village, these mountains created a sense of isolation for the villagers, especially the children.

The Yangtze River provides Hejiaba’s most significant export – ornamental river stones. These stones aren’t the pebbles you may pocket on vacation but heavy boulders for which Chinese stone collectors pay good money. Contrarily, the region’s rarest export is college students. Mingtai was a determined young man, becoming the first Hejiaba resident to leave the village to attend college, let alone acquire a doctoral degree. The event was so unprecedented, Mingtai mentioned that “when I got my offer from the university, there was a big ceremony at my home.”

While collecting information for this story, our team got to spend time with Mingtai at his aerospace engineering lab in Hardaway Hall. We ended up in the back of the historic building in a sizable warehouse-like space that serves as the home to The University of Alabama’s wind tunnels. With a dissertation dedicated to rotor-wing interactions, these wind tunnels are the catalyst for his research. To the average joe, the room looks like something out of a science fiction film. These tunnels dominate the room, and you can tell that Mingtai has found a new home.

Being an international student at an American university is an adventure experienced by few. When talking about the transition from China to the United States, Mingtai prioritized taking oral English classes.

“The language barrier is always an obstacle for international students, but living here is very comfortable,” he said.

He also found The University of Alabama’s weather pleasant.

“The climate is like Shanghai,” he said. “So you get used to the weather very quickly.”

Mingtai credits the classes in empowering him to adapt and engage in academic research. At the close of Mingtai’s interview, he looked back at his career at The University of Alabama with fondness and noted how lucky he has been.

He started by saying, “I really admire my university and hope UA can develop to be better and better…I hope many Chinese students can come to UA and to the United States. I’m glad I was able to make a small contribution to that.”

Mingtai is poised to continue his career in an assistant professor position in the United States. He will undoubtedly continue to make his village proud as he continues to look beyond the mountains for his next adventure.