“… that’s what a BC education is all about”
Investing in faculty and academic programs create a richer student experience and a more academically competitive institution.
It’s a sunny Tuesday morning, three weeks into the fall semester. Assistant Professor of Engineering and Sabet Family Dean’s Faculty Fellow Avneet Hira opens this twice-weekly Innovation Through Design Thinking class—a course that is cross-listed in studio arts and engineering—with a declaration that commands attention.
“Some of you might love today’s class, and some of you might hate it,” Hira announces to the more than 30 students sitting in project teams of four, her voice filling the room through a wireless mic clipped to her gray blazer. “We’re going to do a few brainstorming and improv exercises,” she continues, smiling like she’s got a plan up her sleeve. “So please stand if you are able,” Hira invites, raising her arms above her shoulders. The students exchange looks of apprehension as they unenthusiastically get up from their seats.
“It’s simple. When I say ‘walk,’ walk, and when I say ‘stop,’ stop walking. Ready?” Hira asks. “Walk!” Students begrudgingly shuffle their feet, looking at one another. “Come on, it’s not weird,” she says, while weaving through the rows of whiteboard surfaced tables in the recently renovated Active Learning Classroom. “I’m walking, too!” Her students pick up their pace. “Now stop!” she commands. Students freeze.
Over the next minute or two, Hira gradually builds upon the commands, adding complexity to this variation of Simon Says. Soon, students are walking, clapping, dancing—and smiling. Then Hira introduces a twist. “Now, ‘walk’ means ‘stop’ and ‘stop’ means ‘walk,’ and ‘jump’ means ‘dance’ and ‘dance’ means ‘jump’,” she says. “You need to listen carefully. Walk!” Students laugh as some struggle to not move their feet. With each successive call, they respond to the various directives, determined to succeed.
After a few minutes, Hira gets her class back in their seats. They look to her to hear what’s next.
“A big part of brainstorming within your groups is about being in the moment,” Hira explains. “It takes listening skills and presence and clear communication. You all did a spectacularly good job! Now let’s apply these skills to your projects.”
With their energy levels high, the students are ready to tackle the task at hand: designing ways to improve various aspects of customer service for a fictional dentist’s office. Each group tackles a practical, real-world challenge, ranging from scheduling appointments and reducing wait times to decreasing anxiety levels, retaining patients, and beyond. They dive right in, discussing and innovating creative solutions to complex issues with each other—and with their professor.
In an industry that hovers around 16 percent women, Hira is a role model for her students. Her track record includes positions in some of the nation’s top engineering departments and impressive grants and funding from various sources. In 2023, Hira was awarded a five-year, 596,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant—a first for BC’s human-centered engineering department. It’s NSF’s most prestigious honor in support of a junior faculty member who exemplifies the role of teacher-scholar through research and education. The grant supports Hira’s work promoting fluency in engineering and technology among youth in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
For Hira, it’s a familiar story. Early influences in her own life shaped her path toward who and where she is today. Hira was only a tween when aerospace engineer Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman to soar into space, boarded the Space Shuttle Columbia. Chawla quickly became a national hero in India. From the moment Hira learned about Chawla, she was transfixed—and determined to follow in Chawla’s celestial footsteps. To get there, Hira read everything she could put her hands on about Chawla’s life and achievements. She tailored her education to align with the same career aspirations. She also loved building remote-control airplanes. In high school, many of her peers were also pursuing engineering, so Hira tried to take a different path, deviating from her original plan. She served as president of the school debate club and entered a law program after graduation. But law wasn’t her true calling, and she knew it immediately. After two weeks, Hira enrolled in Punjab Engineering College.
Today, with degrees in aeronautical engineering, aerospace engineering, and engineering education, Hira is thrilled to be part of BC’s human-centered engineering program. “I was attracted to BC for many reasons. Most of all, I really liked the idea of building the program from the ground up,” she says. “My experience was with big engineering schools. BC would provide me with the opportunity to be one of the program’s founding members, to figure out how engineering should be human-centered, and how we should care about the environment—while at the same time teaching traditional and technical knowledge. We would be providing what is needed for the next generation of engineers.”
Hira was also excited about the prospect of starting her own research group, developing new collaborations, and encouraging students toward careers in STEM. One of those students is Eunice Kang ’24, who works in Hira’s lab. “I am inspired at how she views engineering as a way to create spaces for underserved and underrepresented students in engineering, as well as how she connects social justice and technology,” says Kang, who is majoring in international studies and computer science. “She also gives me the space to think about what a project means to me—and asks me for my thoughts on the work.”
She helps connect the field of engineering to what it means in the world.”
—CLAIRE MIKULSKI ’26
Engineering major Claire Mikulski ’26 counts Hira among her favorite BC professors. “She’s like a therapist in the way that she doesn’t simply tell you the answer to a question,” Mikulski says. “She guides you to discover the answer on your own. Most importantly, she helps connect the field of engineering to what it means in the world.”
“BC students have tremendous integrity. In class, in the lab, and one-on-one, they ask really hard questions and they work diligently to develop the skills they need to solve complex problems. They consistently push and challenge me, which I appreciate,” says Hira. “It’s truly a joy to be on campus every day.”
Hira’s commitment to BC was underscored in October when Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences Dean Gregory Kalscheur, S.J., announced that Hira—and Engineering Professor Siddhartan Govindasamy—were both named the inaugural Sabet Family Dean’s Faculty Fellows. The appointments are for five years and are accompanied by $20,000 per year in discretionary funding to support research.
“BC is so fortunate to have Avneet,” says Professor Glenn R. Gaudette, the John W. Kozarich ’71 Chair of the Department of Engineering. “A brilliant researcher and founding faculty member of our program, she has made significant contributions to ensure that our students have the technical knowledge needed in engineering, combined with a mindset focused on making the world a better place for all. That’s how she—and so many of BC’s outstanding faculty—operate every day, and that’s what a BC education is all about. That’s our mission.”
If an office reflects one’s state of mind, then Hira stands out as one of the most fascinating people on BC’s campus. Her shelves, desktops, and walls showcase an array of eclectic media, instruments, and artwork—nearly all constructed by her own hands. Pieces such as a LEGO® typewriter, a map made on a 3D printer, and a metal tree of life crafted with her mother are eye-catching focal points. These—and more—often become conversation starters with the many students Hira meets with throughout the week during office hours.
Although it looks real, no typist can practice “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” on this typewriter—Hira built it entirely of LEGO® bricks.
Toys, photos, and other things that make Hira—and her students—smile.
Retaining, Rewarding, and Attracting Exceptional Faculty
Endowed professorships, fellowships, and faculty research funds are what keep outstanding faculty at the Heights. They also attract faculty to campus, and bring their expertise to BC. Recent hires from Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, and New York University include Nobel laureate Paul Romer who joined BC’s faculty this year as the inaugural Seidner University Professor in the Carroll School of Management. Others include:
- Thomas W. Mitchell, the Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Chair and director of the Initiative on Land and Housing Rights Property at BC Law School
- Guy Beiner, the Craig and Maureen Sullivan Millennium Chair in Irish Studies and director of the University’s Center for Irish Programs
- George Mohler, the Daniel J. Fitzgerald Professor, and the University’s first faculty member specifically focused in data science
“The competition for high-caliber faculty is fierce right now,” says Katherine Gregory, dean of the William F. Connell School of Nursing at Boston College. “Having opportunities like endowed chairs and professorships make it possible for us to recruit and, more importantly, retain top-tier faculty, who then influence the education, the academic programs, and the student experience.”
Teachers, Mentors, and Role Models
As drivers of formative education within a Jesuit, Catholic framework, BC’s faculty not only shape students’ academic experiences, but also their values, aspirations, and career choices. BC Law alumna Emily Jordan, JD’22, is grateful for the guidance she received from Associate Professor Natalya Shnitser, a recipient of the Patricia and John McHale Fund for Faculty Research and Scholarship at Boston College Law School. “It was through our conversations during office hours that I ended up practicing employee benefits law,” Jordan says. “Professor Shnitser shared stories from her experience in this practice area and answered all of my questions, which helped me find my path. She played an integral role in my BC Law experience, and her passion and commitment to the field continue to inspire me.”
Sydney Cheney, MS’22, DNP’24, a former Beth Verre Martignetti ’76 Fellow, appreciates the support she’s received from her co-directors in the Family Nurse Practitioner specialty. “They are fantastic mentors and have made an impact on my education and time at BC,” she says. “These skilled practitioners have a wealth of clinical knowledge, and they are adept educators who ensure that the course material is understood by all. Most importantly, they are compassionate and care for their students. I believe that I will be a better NP because of them.”
Affecting Real Change in the World
The Boston College Core Curriculum allows students to explore new ways of knowing and being, helping them discern who they want to be, how they want to live—and why. Additionally, some of the University’s greatest impact derives from academic institutes, programs, and centers. These initiatives reflect the University’s commitment to understanding the world and providing the open-ended intellectual freedom to innovate solutions to its problems.
- The Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, housed in 245 Beacon Street—a science facility in the heart of campus—focuses on energy, health, and the environment through the lens of designing solutions that benefit everyone. Its impact is magnified by programs like human-centered engineering and Global Public Health and the Common Good.
- The Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children uses research and data to help scale the chance for all students to develop, learn, and thrive, transforming schools and communities into systems of opportunity.
- The Catholic Religious Archives allow students and scholars access to the contributions of religious communities of men and women to the Catholic Church, Catholic life, and wider culture.