Long collaboration with French university leads to Negahban receiving honorary doctorate

Calendar Icon Apr 18, 2016      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed  RSS Submit a Story

Mehrdad Negahban, professor and graduate chair of mechanical and materials engineering
Mehrdad Negahban, professor and graduate chair of mechanical and materials engineering
After two decades of co-leading collaboration that has helped nearly 100 students earn graduate degrees at both UNL and in France, Mehrdad Negahban will receive a very special advanced degree of his own.

Negahban, professor and graduate chair of mechanical and materials engineering, will be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Rouen on April 21 as the French institution celebrates its 50th anniversary.

The honor, Negahban said, likely is in recognition of a long and fruitful partnership that he and the College of Engineering have had with the University of Rouen. But Negahban said the relationship might not have happened if he had been able to rent a car back in 1996.

“I went to a conference in Texas and I had forgotten that my driver’s license had expired. When I went to get a rental car so that I could drive to the conference, they said, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Negahban said. “I took the shuttle to the conference and met Jean-Marc Saiter and the rest is history.”

Saiter, a professor of physics at Rouen, struck up a friendship with Negahban led to the development of a fruitful collaboration between UNL and the French university.

Over the last decade, nearly 40 graduate students have earned master’s degrees at both universities while faculty from both institutions have spent time teaching “short” courses at the other school.

The collaboration initially grew from Rouen’s need to promote a “bilingual” education, Negahban said.

“Since Rouen is so close to the English Channel, their idea of ‘bilingual’ was introducing English into their programs. They asked if I could come and teach part of a mateirals class in English,” Negahban said. “My French is not so good, but English, that’s something I could do.”

Since then, Negahban said, nearly a dozen UNL faculty have taught at the University of Rouen, including current mechanical and materials engineering faculty Joe Turner, Li Tan, Carl Nelson, Lucia Fernandez-Ballester and Jeff Shield.

The exchange program evolved into sending graduate and undergraduate students for research and also UNL sending groups that ranged in size from 10 to 35 over the years – for study abroad at Rouen. It was an arrangement that had a lasting impact on UNL students, Negahban said.

“That was a life-changer for a lot of students from Nebraska,” Negahban said. “The study abroad students had engineering classes at Rouen, which would share their facilities with us. A  lot of the students hadn’t been outside Nebraska or the US. Pretty much all of them when they came back said, ‘it changed my life, and I’m looking at the world in a different way.’ ”

With grants from the Department of Education and the French Embassy, the collaboration changed about 12 years ago. The two universities agreed to a program that would offer master’s and PhD degrees from both institutions and set up the Advanced Mechanics and Materials Engineering International Laboratory (AMME-International), of which Negahban is the U.S. director. This established a permanent collaboration between a group of faculty at UNL and Rouen.  These were, Negahban said, only possible with the strong support of administrators at both institutions, including visits by delegations from UNL, including Prem Paul, and from Rouen.

And next Friday, Negahban will receive an honorary doctorate and will be asked to deliver a speech at the ceremony.

“In English,” Negahban said.

Part of the ceremony will be held in the Museum of Fine Arts, where many local artists’ works, including Claude Monet, are on display. It’s a fitting location, Negahban said, to pay tribute to a long-lasting relationship that took a lot of artistry to maintain.

“They’ve asked me to talk about what I did and how this relation was constructed,” Negahban said. “This activity is responsible for probably 50 percent of what I do today. You can see its footprint in my research and teaching. Even the directions I took for funding changed with this interaction.

“I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends and seeing the sights. There’s good wine and good food, but this is all about good friends.”

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