June 2023 Graduate Student Spotlight: Gandhar Abhay Pandit

June Spotlight

Gandhar Abhay Pandit is a Ph.D. student at UC Davis. 

Read on to learn about Gandhar's love for Yosemite and his passion for managing organic waste in California..

Tell us about yourself in few words?

I am originally for India and came to USA in the Fall of 2017 to purse masters from Arizona State University and was graduated in the summer of 2019 to purse my doctoral studies in Environmental Engineering with special focus of bioplastic degradation. For first 2 years I worked with Dr Maureen Kinyua and later I am working with Prof John Harvey. I have previously worked on project which focused on developing biological treatment technologies for treating biodegradable plastics. Currently I am working on a project which intends to solve the problem of rice straw disposal in California.

What is your research about and why is it important?

My research focuses on examining and evaluating potential approaches for managing organic waste in California, including municipal solid waste (MSW) and agricultural residue waste (ARW). The conventional method of landfilling these wastes is not ideal due to its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the potential for soil and water pollution. Therefore, it is crucial to explore alternative strategies that can effectively address these waste streams while minimizing negative environmental impacts and, if possible, offering additional benefits. To achieve this goal, my research employs a comprehensive approach involving literature reviews and bench-scale and field-scale experiments. By thoroughly investigating various treatment options, the study aims to identify and prioritize the most suitable methods for utilizing MSW and ARW, which could be globally applicable. This research's significance lies in providing valuable insights into organic waste management. and providing practical solutions for policymakers and waste managers in California.

Why did you choose UC Davis to pursue your degree?

After obtaining my master's degree, I engaged in a period of introspection that guided me toward the decision of pursuing a doctoral program at UC Davis, a renowned institution in my field. This choice naturally evolved after careful consideration of my academic background, areas of interest, and long-term professional aspirations. Two primary reasons influenced my selection of UC Davis. Firstly, the prospect of conducting dissertation research under the guidance of esteemed professors, whose work serves as a role model in my field. I believe this immersive experience is the most effective means to foster a student's growth into an independent researcher capable of making substantial and original contributions. Secondly, the emphasis placed on the intensive and self-directed study of a specialized area during a doctoral program provides an optimal framework for students to swiftly attain the forefront of knowledge within their specific subfield while staying abreast of the latest developments. Having completed my graduate studies at ASU, I view it as a privilege to have the opportunity to pursue my doctoral studies at UC Davis. The university's prestigious reputation, coupled with its excellent resources and research opportunities, further reinforces this privilege.

How would you describe your graduate life journey so far?

I would consider my graduate life journey so far as a thrilling roller coaster ride. It all began in the fall of 2019 when I embarked on my Ph.D. journey at UC Davis. However, as I was settling into my second quarter, the pandemic struck, and everything changed. The lockdown measures imposed restricted our access to labs, but it provided an unexpected opportunity for me to focus on my coursework. Consequently, I completed a significant portion of my required course credits within the first year of my Ph.D. During the partial shutdown of labs, I had the chance to engage in fieldwork, which was a valuable learning experience. Not only did it expose me to the industry, but it also allowed me to identify gaps in my field of interest. This, in turn, helped me determine the focus and direction of my research. After nearly a year of working in the field, I transitioned to conducting laboratory-scale experiments, which I completed within the subsequent six months. However, after two and a half years into my Ph.D., due to some personal reasons, my previous advisor decided to leave the university. This unexpected development presented me with a difficult choice: either graduate with a master's degree or find a new mentor and continue or restart my Ph.D. at UC Davis. Since obtaining a Ph.D. had always been a lifelong dream, I couldn't fathom the idea of giving up. Thus, I embarked on a journey to seek professors who could guide and support me in completing my Ph.D. at UC Davis. Following an extensive search and multiple interviews with potential advisors, I was fortunate to connect with Dr. John Harvey, my current mentor. He graciously agreed to assist me with the final chapter of my dissertation, and his guidance has been instrumental in realizing my long-held aspiration of obtaining a Ph.D. Subsequently, I successfully completed my Candidacy Examination, undertook a new project in a different lab with new colleagues, and reached the final stages of my Ph.D. journey. At present, I have submitted my dissertation to the graduate school and eagerly await my graduation.

What has been your favorite part of graduate school?

The aspect of graduate school that I have particularly cherished is the opportunity to actively participate in profound discussions, attend thought-provoking seminars and conferences, and engage with esteemed experts in their respective fields. Personally, I believe that this intellectual engagement has played a crucial role in fostering a continuous learning process, honing my critical thinking skills, and cultivating a profound understanding of my research area. Additionally, I find great satisfaction in the collaborative nature of graduate school, whether it involves working alongside peers, being part of research teams, or engaging in interdisciplinary projects. This collaborative environment not only facilitates the sharing of knowledge but also exposes me to diverse perspectives and allows me to benefit from the expertise of others. Furthermore, for the past three years, I have actively contributed to SWEGS, a student organization within the CEE department. Currently, I hold the position of president in this organization. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to plan and organize various events that cater to the personal and academic growth of graduate students. Being involved in such organizational activities has added an additional layer of fulfillment to my graduate school experience.

What do you think is the greatest challenge that graduate students face and how have you been able to address it?

My greatest challenge was balancing academic responsibilities with personal well-being and maintaining a healthy work-life equilibrium. To address this, firstly, I prioritized self-care by incorporating regular exercise and sufficient rest into my routine. This helped me to recharge and maintain my mental and physical well-being. Secondly, I learned to effectively manage my time by utilizing organizational tools like google calendar and creating a structured schedule. This enabled me to dedicate time to research, coursework, and personal commitments. Lastly, I actively sought support from my peers, mentors, and colleagues within the university. Engaging in discussions with others who understand graduate school's challenges has immensely benefited me in finding solutions and gaining perspective.

What is your plan after graduation?

Upon completing my Ph.D., my overarching career aspiration is to embark on a research-oriented path, either as a postdoctoral researcher or as a member of an R&D department in the industry. What drives me in this pursuit is a deep-seated motivation to give back to society, which has played a pivotal role in shaping my identity and personal growth.

What advice do you have for current and prospective CEE graduate students?

Have faith in yourself and have faith in your aspirations. Invest time in clearly defining your academic and professional objectives. Gain a deep understanding of what you aim to accomplish through your graduate studies and how it aligns with your long-term goals. If you find yourself unsure of your direction, seek out mentors within the CEE field who can offer guidance and support throughout your journey. Make a conscious effort to connect with fellow students, professors, and professionals in your field. Actively engage in research projects and actively pursue internships in industries or organizations relevant to your field. These experiences will equip you with practical skills, expose you to real-world challenges, and deepen your understanding of the subject matter. Also, take the time to familiarize yourself with the resources available to you, such as academic support services, research facilities, libraries, and career development programs. These resources can be invaluable in aiding your academic progress and personal growth. Finally, remember to cherish the journey. Graduate school is a distinctive period of intellectual expansion, personal development, and forging lifelong connections. Embrace the challenges you encounter, celebrate your achievements along the way, and relish the joy of exploration and learning.

What is your favorite destination for vacation?

I love Yosemite any time of the year.

How do you unwind after work?

Apart from my research, I enjoy hiking, cooking and reading non fiction books. I am also a big cinephile and thus love watching films regardless of the language they are in.