From Punjab to Houghton: Fulbright Scholar Embarks on a Tech Adventure

Visiting Fulbright Scholar Neetu Goel on the Michigan Tech Campus in fall 2023.
Visiting Fulbright Scholar Neetu Goel on the Michigan Tech Campus in fall 2023.
Neetu Goel’s home base at Michigan Tech is the physics department. Goel says one of the most challenging aspects of her decision to pursue a Fulbright was leaving her family for six months. Knowing they support her and are proud of her is reassuring — as are regular check-ins via Zoom.
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Fulbright Scholar Neetu Goel wanted to expand her horizons. She came to the right place. In this recollection of her first months on the Michigan Tech campus, the educator and researcher shares the highlights of her experience thus far.

"The day I arrived at Michigan Tech, I experienced my first culture shock — living in a town of less than 8,000 people was a huge change for a person who lived her whole life in Punjab, a state in India with a population of more than 30 million. While I was awestruck by the serenity and the quiet of this place, I was wondering what it would hold for a gregarious person like me.

I quickly realized the multitude of advantages of being in a small town: the close-knit community, warm and friendly people, and happy and calm vibes of the place destress you immediately.

For the first time in my long career, I took six months off my job as a chemistry professor at Panjab University, in Chandigarh, India, to embark on this stimulating journey of being a Fulbright Scholar. I had reached a stage in my career where it was important to come out of my comfort zone and explore new vistas. I chose the Fulbright Program because, in addition to the prestige associated with the award, it offers vast opportunities to surpass boundaries and barriers, including culture and language, to enrich you at both the personal and professional level. The application procedure itself is more than a narrative of academic achievement; it is a testament to your perseverance and determination. 

A Fulbright scholar and her academic sponsor stand in the rock garden at Michigan Tech outside the physics department where they conduct their teaching and research.
Goel with Ravindra Pandey, dean of Michigan Tech’s College of Sciences and Arts. The physics professor serves as the Fulbright Scholar’s faculty sponsor.

Navigating a foreign environment presents another set of challenges. A gentle yet firm push by my host, Professor Ravindra Pandey, provided me the bedrock upon which I continue to build my Fulbright journey. Beyond the logistical assistance, the resources, the connections, the advice and the anecdotes he shares to familiarize me with my new surroundings, he empowers me to tread unknown roads with firm footing.

It is exciting to explore new perspectives where there is an overlap between my research endeavors and his expertise. The weekly meetings with his research group keep me engaged in the work of his grad students. The regular exchange of ideas is mutually gratifying and makes me confident that the outcome of the project will go beyond the defined goals and expand my academic horizon. 

The predictive power of electronic structure calculations built on sophisticated algorithms that allow near-accurate solution of the Schrodinger equation have added computational physics and chemistry as vital tools in the arsenal of the scientist.  My research pursuits involve density functional calculations on 2D materials, catalysis and noncovalent interactions. The goal is to design robust and efficient materials for energy and environment applications. In collaboration with Pandey’s group, the focus is to design bioconjugated nanomaterials for therapeutic applications and provide proof of concept through in silico modeling.

The access to high-power computing facilities and regular discussions with the research group are turning out to be very productive in acquiring new skills and adding more dimensions to my research work.

A visiting Fulbright scholar enjoys fall color season near Fisher Hall outside on the Michigan Tech campus where she is studying for six months.
Goel outside Fisher Hall, the Physics Department's home base 

In regard to teaching at Michigan Tech, I am in awe of the technology used in the classroom. As a chemist, teaching a solid-state physics course to a bunch of physics students has been a scintillating experience. I come from a place where teaching is way more than imparting knowledge, where there is an intellectual and emotional bond between the teacher and the taught. My vast experience in this pedagogical art helped me to establish an instant, comfortable connection with my students. I am grateful to them for their active engagement and hope I add fresh prospects to their learning of the subject. 

The cheerful morning greetings by everyone in the office resonate with warmth and welcome and reinforce the belief that, while our world is vast and diverse, a genuine smile and friendliness can bridge any divide. Evening walks beside the lake with my favorite companions, Parth (a College of Forest Resources and Environmental Sciences assistant teaching professor and researcher) and Vaishali (a grad student in biological sciences and his fiancee), is the dream way to bring a beautiful day to an end with the promise of more sunshine on the next. Everyone tells me to be prepared, as the winter is fast approaching. The vibrant tapestry of colors that have erupted and the warmth of the people around me make me very hopeful that it will be a delightful experience."

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.