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Graduate Students Build Community Through Loss

After the tragic death of Abhijit Mahato, a flourishing Duke engineering graduate student, a group of Pratt School of Engineering students and faculty began working to create a life-affirming event to celebrate his life and honor his memory. Their efforts have culminated in a unique memorial event, called “Envisioning the Invisible,” an image and photo contest with two submission categories: Making the ordinary extraordinary (presenting everyday objects in a manner that makes them unrecognizable) and Sharing the science and knowledge of objects through vision and imaging (using an image or photo to teach us something about our world that we otherwise could not have learned).

Ideas for this event were initially discussed at multiple Engineering Graduate Student Council (EGSC) general body meetings, with Professor Tod Laursen, who had been Mahato’s advisor, in attendance to help brainstorm ideas of what would be an appropriate event to offer the community and honor Mahato’s memory. While moving forward faltered initially because of difficulties surrounding both cost and the challenge of offering a sustainable, annual event, the EGSC was determined to move ahead, putting together a dedicated committee for the program so that a more focused effort could be put into its planning and execution.

The committee, which consists of EGSC members as well as some of Abhijit’s friends and labmates, spent a few meetings discussing what he might have wanted in an event such as this. According to Sara Salahi, an EGSC member and one of the prime movers in successfully planning the event, the committee began to focus on what would be representative of Mahato’s own interests: “We cycled through multiple ideas. He really appreciated controversial issues that would bring people from multiple perspectives to the table for discussion. He was involved in activities like sports, chess, and photography. So we decided to go with the image and photo contest because it would bring a lot of people from different disciplines together in talent appreciation and friendly competition. And we think that he would have loved to participate in such an event himself if he were still with us.”

Andrew Fontanella, another EGSC member who has been working closely with Sara on the event, echoes her sentiments: “Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet Abhijit, so everything I know about him came from our discussions with his adviser, friends, and labmates. But in all of their accounts of him, they mention his passion for photography, which is why we thought this theme would be appropriate for the event. Another thing that came across in our conversations was his interest in discussing and debating all sorts of issues. And although Abhijit’s primary drive was his research, it was apparent that he loved to explore everything that the world outside engineering had to offer. I think that he was definitely the rare type of researcher who understood both the potential and the responsibility of his research, and how it might influence the broader world outside academia. I believe this was a major source of inspiration and drive for him, and this came across through his love of conversation and exchange of ideas and beliefs.”

When the students proposed their idea about the contest to the Pratt Directors of Graduate Studies, Professor Ashutosh Chilkoti suggested that they ask Felice Frankel, a noted science photographer who holds concurrent positions at Harvard University, Harvard Medical School’s Systems Biology, the Wyss Institute, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to give the keynote speech for the event. When a member of the student-run planning committee reached out to her, she expressed her interest in participating. At this point, it seems that the event really began to take on a life of its own. The director of Duke’s Visualization Technology Lab, Dr. Rachel Brady, who holds dual appointments in Computer Science and Art, Art History & Visual Studies, and who has collaborated with Frankel in the past, agreed to chair the judge’s panel for the image and photo contest. Her contacts in the Visual Studies, Computer Science and Art departments, as well as at North Carolina State University and UNC-Chapel Hill helped pull together a distinguished judging panel as well as spread the word about the event within and outside Duke.

According to Salahi, “The students on the planning committee are working closely with administrators all over campus to prepare for this event. Honestly, I’d say that the event was motivated by students but will be executed by a balanced team effort between students and the administration.” The financial support for the event is also community wide: along with the Pratt School of Engineering, the Graduate School and the Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) are bearing part of the costs of the event. Daniel Griffin, Ph.D. candidate in Classical Studies and newly elected GPSC president, says “I first found out about the event when the planning stage was wrapping up, shortly after I assumed the GPSC President office. I could tell immediately it would be a great event—the idea of the photo contest and the keynote speaker are great—and was more than happy for GPSC to support the memorial in any way we could. Sara contacted me about a month or so ago to ask about help with funding and advertising the event: I brought it up at our next GPSC Executive Board meeting and the decision was unanimous to sponsor the event as the organizers saw fit. It is shaping up to be a great event, and I can think of no better way to honor our colleague.”

Salahi also found the Graduate School to be a willing supporter: “We took the idea to the Graduate School, met with Deans Jo Rae Wright and Jackie Looney, and they were thrilled to hear our proposal for the event. They agreed to match Pratt’s contribution, which gave us the financial commitment we needed to see this event through. We are thankful for their support and for their help in spreading the word.” Dean Looney agreed that the student’s passion about their mission was contagious, adding that “When Sara and Andrew decided to take on planning an event to remember Abhijit it was simply a demonstration of the citizen-scholar role graduate students continue to play in this community. Duke graduate students are dedicated to leading and committed to serving while pursuing their intellectual goals—and we’re proud of them.” Dean Wright added that “I agree with Jackie that we are proud of Sara and Andrew and the students who have embraced this important event and persisted to make it happen. The Graduate School is honored to have the opportunity to be part of this important tribute to Abhijit who was clearly a role model to many students and a wonderful person.”

With assistance from many others, the collaborative effort continued to blossom. Yvonne Connelly, administrative assistant in the dean’s office at Pratt, has been instrumental in supporting the logistics of planning the event, organizing meetings between the administration and the student planning committee in order to continue the event planning and execution process. She also coordinated contact with the appropriate Nasher Museum staff who will be staging the display of the contest entries in CIEMAS, and helped with the arrangements for Felice Frankel’s travel and stay in Durham as well as catering for the event reception. Salahi also worked closely with Deborah Hill, another Pratt staff member, and Duke’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) to create the event Web site and prepare it for contest submissions. Additionally, OIT will be livestreaming the event for those who cannot be there in person, especially Abhijit’s friends and family members who live in India and will not be able to attend.

Salahi says that, “with word about the event spreading like wildfire and submissions to the contest rolling in a month before deadline, the event is going to be great because of the community’s interest in it. The contest, coupled with an event to honor Abhijit Mahato, is something that the entire community is passionate about being involved in.”

The deadline for contest submissions is Wednesday, September 8th at midnight, and the event will be held on Wednesday, September 15th in the FCIEMAS Atrium and Schiciano Auditorium from 4:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Event highlights include the announcement of award winners of the Abhijit Mahato Memorial Fellowship, which will provide financial support to an international student in engineering; a keynote lecture by Frankel, and announcement of the image and photo contest winners, followed by a reception. For complete information about the event and the contest, please visit