How I Got My Start: Tuskegee University’s Shaik Jeelani

Tuskegee University produces more research per capita than any other historically black college, and one reason is Shaik Jeelani. Tuskegee made a place for him 45 years ago and he was never persuaded to leave.

Shaik Jeelani has crafted a career at Tuskegee, from his days as a fledgling professor to his current role as dean of the graduate school and vice president for research. Photos by Robert Fouts

As a smart child growing up in India, Shaik Jeelani really had no control over what he might do with his life.

“There, you have a system,” Jeelani says. “I was first in my school. If you rank at the top, you go into engineering. Doing anything differently was like you were committing a crime. It was already decided.”

And that was just fine with Jeelani, who became the first person in his family to go to college.

It was after college that his life diverted from the script, eventually leading to Tuskegee University, where Jeelani, now as vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, has forged a dual career as one of the country’s foremost researchers in advanced materials and as a mentor to hundreds of students.

But if the original plan had worked itself out, he’d still be in India.

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“I was supposed to get my master’s degree in the United States and then go back,” Jeelani says. “But I came here for graduate studies at North Carolina State University, and the school encouraged me to stay.”

A master’s degree was followed by his doctorate in mechanical engineering. “My professor persuaded me to be on the faculty, and he found a job for me,” Jeelani says. “I always had a fascination toward teaching, and there are a lot of opportunities here in the U.S. for one to be a faculty member and to conduct research.”

That job was at Tuskegee, where Jeelani has raised a family and made a name for himself in engineering research. “It was the first place I had a job, and it’s hopefully my last,” he says with a laugh.

Jeelani’s research has focused on advanced materials. “It’s not your garden variety materials, like iron, steel, copper, aluminum and plastic,” he says. “With advanced materials, you actually synthesize materials from scratch to meet certain requirements. For example, you’ve got to have strong and stiff materials for infrastructure and stiff and light materials for aircraft. It all depends on who your customer is and what the grant requires.”

While a number of Jeelani’s grants have been with the Department of Defense — he’s worked on materials for tanks, submarines and soldiers’ flak jackets — he’s also conducted or overseen a great deal of research applicable to Alabama’s emerging industries.

“A lot of the research has been for the aviation and automotive industries,” he says. “We do a lot of research with biodegradable materials, and there’s a lot of work going on in laboratories in material science that is applicable to the aviation industry, the automotive industry and also the marine industry. How can you make a boat lighter and stronger?”

As his job at Tuskegee has changed, Jeelani has spent more and more time out of the lab and more involved in landing research contracts for the university.

“I have two jobs here,” Jeelani says. “The first is to oversee the research throughout the campus, not just in engineering. I motivate the faculty to write grants and implement them throughout all disciplines. The other job is as dean of the Graduate School, where I manage with my staff the graduate program for the entire campus. We offer four doctoral degrees and 16 master’s degrees in all STEM disciplines, as well as the liberal arts.”

The amount of research going on at Tuskegee surprises some people, Jeelani says. “We do more per capita research, based on the faculty and the student body, compared to any other historically black institution in the country,” he says. “We do much, much better.”

As noted as he is for his research, Jeelani says his first love has always been mentoring students, dating back to his high school and undergraduate days in India.

“I always wanted to help disadvantaged people, work with them, help them out,” Jeelani say. “Back home, it was a class structure. I always wanted to help them out, and I did. I had a lot of success there.”

That mentoring success continued throughout his time at NCSU and, now, at Tuskegee.

“The research is great, but what I do has always been because of students,” Jeelani says. “I’m really proud of the graduate program I’ve created here. I love teaching, and that is my strength. I love the support from the students. We work with them so when they graduate they are marketable and they do well wherever they go.”

Jeelani’s work has brought kudos from near and far, including the Presidential Award for Mentoring from President Barack Obama.

His work has not gone unnoticed by his peers and others at Tuskegee.

“During Dr. Jeelani’s three-plus decades of service to Tuskegee University, he has mentored students and colleagues alike,” says Roberta Troy, Tuskegee’s interim provost.

“His many research endeavors have provided undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to gain valuable laboratory experience that has proven instrumental in their post-graduate success. Furthermore, through his work as a faculty member, associate dean and now as vice president for research, he has strengthened our STEM education and research efforts. His efforts continue to help our faculty — not to mention the institution as a whole — increase our competitiveness for the vital external support that makes research innovation at Tuskegee possible.”

Jeelani, who lives in Auburn, has three grown children. His two sons are both engineers, and his daughter is a physician, though she earned an microbiology degree at Auburn.

Over the years, Jeelani has had chances to leave Tuskegee, but he’s stayed put at the place where he felt so welcomed in 1974.

“I had other offers then, but when I came, the dean of Engineering convinced me this was the best place for me,” Jeelani recalls. “He said they’d set up the lab for me. He really, really sold it and made it happen. And I’ve had lots of opportunities in 45 years to go somewhere else, but Tuskegee wouldn’t let me go. The job has been very challenging and very interesting.”

Alec Harvey and Robert Fouts are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey is based in Auburn and Fouts in Montgomery.

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