University of Iowa doctoral candidate Prarthana Parepalli planned to present her dissertation in mechanical engineering a month ahead of the anticipated arrival of her second child. Mother Nature had other ideas.
Sara Epstein Moninger
Tim Schoon

Prarthana Parepalli spent nearly seven years working as a computational fluid dynamics engineer with Ford Motor Company before starting the University of Iowa’s PhD program in mechanical engineering.

She moved to Iowa City in 2018 when her husband, Sajan Goud Lingala, accepted a UI faculty position in biomedical engineering and radiology, and she found the opportunity to continue her education at Iowa too good to pass up.

Prarthana Parepalli

Hometown: Hyderabad, India

Degree: PhD in mechanical engineering

What’s next: Applying for a postdoctoral position with the National Research Council Research Associateship program funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory

“I always had a passion for physics, and the reason I chose mechanical engineering is my inclination toward aerodynamics,” says Parepalli, who earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan–Dearborn before working at Ford. “When I came to Iowa, I was really impressed with the variety of research that is done here, especially in my discipline, and also the specialized coursework available.”

Although reacclimating to academic life—one punctuated by two pregnancies and a pandemic—wasn’t easy, Parepalli says the support she received at Iowa allowed her to advance her knowledge while also starting a family. In fact, she gave birth just days after successfully defending her dissertation.

What were your first impressions of the University of Iowa?

I admit I had reservations coming to Iowa City, especially because I had lived in bigger cities like Detroit, Michigan. But after coming here I was really surprised by how close-knit the community is. Everything is so accessible, including excellent health care. I am very fortunate to have delivered both my children at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics—the doctors and staff there are extremely friendly and knowledgeable. I love the whole university atmosphere and how vibrant it is.

Prarthana Parepalli holding her older child

While pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering at Iowa, Prarthana Parepalli gave birth twice—once just three days after successfully defending her dissertation. She says the support she received from campus colleagues helped her balance academics and family life.

Prarthana Parepalli holding her younger child

I also found that I had to quickly adapt to classroom life. That first year was tough, I won’t lie. I was in the thick of exams, quizzes, and regular assignments, and it was overwhelming. Fortunately, the faculty were very helpful. With their dedicated office hours, I could approach them with any kinds of questions, and the teaching assistants also helped me through the transition from industry to academia.

Who was your most important mentor on campus?

My advisor, Professor H.S. Udaykumar. Working toward a PhD can get stressful, and his unique style of mentorship really helped me navigate the journey. He is an inspiration. His constant feedback ensured continuity in my research. I particularly appreciate the high standards he always set for technical writing and presentations, and his strong support during my last few months was crucial for me to graduate on time.

Talk about the challenges you faced at Iowa and how you overcame them.

During these past five and a half years here, I had my two kids. My first child is now 4 years old, and my second one is 1 month old. Navigating the coursework and academic research while tending to my first kid was challenging, particularly balancing child care duties and the lack of child care during COVID. I was being exposed to several exciting new research areas that required me to invest dedicated time and there was a steep learning curve, but the excellent support I received from my lab colleagues calmed my nerves. I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but at that time I took a course called Communicating Data Through Stories with Professor Michelle Scherer. It helped me become an effective speaker, especially in communicating my research to a lay audience, and that gave me confidence.

The final seven months of my PhD were the most intense. I was pregnant with my second baby and tending to a super energetic toddler, while also ramping up my research to complete my dissertation before the delivery. Professor Udaykumar helped me put together a solid dissertation, “Multiscale Modeling of Heterogeneous Energetic Materials,” and we came up with a realistic plan of defending it one month before my due date. I enjoyed presenting my work during the final thesis defense, but it was physically challenging, and I sensed something was wrong.

Mechanical engineering at Iowa

Cars, aircraft, medical devices, structures—all of these begin in the imaginations of mechanical engineers. They use computers to simulate freezing human cells, casting processes, and failure of vehicle components, among other things. They improve alternative energy sources like fuel cells, wind, and biomass, and use reality-based design and optimization to boost performance.

The mechanical engineering program in the UI College of Engineering is especially strong in areas ranging from biomechanics to fluid mechanics, such as design optimization for ship hydrodynamics.

Three days later I learned there were complications in my pregnancy and had to have an emergency delivery, but thanks to all the knowledgeable and caring providers at UI Hospitals & Clinics, I was fortunate to have a healthy baby and—with some recovery—a healthy me.

What’s next for you?

I plan to continue in academia. I am currently on a maternity break, but I am applying for an exciting postdoctoral position with the National Research Council Research Associateship program funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Eglin Air Force Base. This would give me an opportunity to broaden my current expertise in multiscale modeling of reactive materials.

Overall, I learned a lot and increased my skills during my PhD journey, and I am very happy that I was able to come through it without compromising my personal life and tending to my kids. That was only possible with the strong support from my mentor, faculty, colleagues, and the overall Hawkeye community. I am now proud to call myself a Hawkeye grad!