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Giving Back for Lessons Learned

Prashant Prabhu

When Wilson College of Textiles alumnus Prashant Prabhu [MS Textile Chemistry , ’77, Ph.D. Fiber and Polymer Science, ’79] reflects on his experiences at NC State, he talks about the way in which the school centered him, provided a home and made it possible for him to succeed academically as well as professionally.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and minoring in physics at the University of Bombay, Prabhu stayed there to pursue a degree in textile chemistry. But he began looking for graduate school programs in the United States, ones that would permit him to leverage his textile chemistry background while also providing the opportunity to integrate a polymers program. NC State stood out among the six American schools he considered because it was the only one with a Fiber and Polymer Science program. He set off for the Wilson College of Textiles in 1975.

“I was not aware of other Indian grad students from amongst my seniors in India who had attended NCSU. So I sort of felt like a ‘pilgrim father’ when I embarked on my plane ride to the U.S.,” he said.

When he arrived in Raleigh, he discovered a thriving Indian community on and off campus.

“NC State became a home away from home. And to an immigrant, one of the first things one wants to anchor is home. That is what NC State remains for me,” he said.
Prabhu found U.S. graduate school to be a vastly different experience than his educational experiences in India.

“The Indian system is quite rote based and whereas it prepares you well to succeed in examinations and the knowledge for which it tests you, it does not prepare you for education and an inquiry-based process which I discovered. The first semester was a time for discovery, adjustment and assimilation,” he said.

As he progressed through the program, he discovered that in fact his Indian education had prepared him well to handle the rigor of the program. “To find yourself able to work alongside peers, fellow grad students who have been raised in the U.S. system, was a huge confidence booster,” he said.

For Prabhu, graduate studies at the Wilson College of Textiles not only provided him with opportunities to challenge himself but also to challenge accepted methodologies.

During his research, he questioned the validity of a long-standing method proposed in existing literature. Concerned that such an assertion coming from a grad student would be seen as inappropriate at best and pretentious at worst, Prabhu spoke with his advisor, the late Dr. Richard D. Gilbert.

“I learned how my advisor handled this observation and then after he was convinced said to me that now that the existing method would not do, I would have to find a new one if I wished to continue. This became a cornerstone of my thesis,” he said.

While attending a weekly graduate seminar, Prabhu heard a speaker discuss a technique from a different field, but one which Prabhu thought could be adapted to his work and be the method he was looking for. He spoke with the presenter and discussed his idea.

“Within a week, I had done the first experiments that showed the adaptation could work,” he said. “Both examples affirmed the open system in which one can and must challenge the information we receive and take responsibility to not simply stop at a negative conclusion but work towards providing a better alternative. This can be a lesson for life.”

Prabhu’s Wilson College of Textiles graduate education would serve him well in his professional pursuits as well as his academic ones.

In 1979, he joined Michelin’s new Research and Development facility in Greenville, S.C. With a minor in economics from NC State, he had his sights set on transitioning from bench research to research management. By the age of 45 he was heading that facility. He held that position for five years before moving on to managing a Global Business Unit and leading Michelin’s activities in emerging markets.

“The instincts developed during grad school for inquiry, embarking into uncharted territory and not taking the status quo for granted stood me in very good stead during these out-of-the-comfort-zone assignments,” he said.

As his way of acknowledging the role NC State has played in his adult life, Prabhu has been making an annual unrestricted gift to the Wilson College of Textiles for many years.

“My professional career was enabled by my graduate education at NCSU,” he said. “Today, I think that in a society such as the one we live in, especially in the U.S., I realize how privileged I have been, and an open society must expect and encourage its members to give back in any way they can. It is a very simple and humble expression of gratitude for what one has received that merits a tangible acknowledgement.”