A Chance to Create My Own Path

Alumni Jad Mahmoud Halabi talks about his choice to come back to NYU Abu Dhabi for a PhD

Jad Mahmoud Halabi graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2016 with a mechanical engineering degree. He returned to the NYUAD campus not long after to become a Global PhD Fellow in Chemistry.

Why did you decide to come back?

Associate Professor of Chemistry Panče Naumov was giving a talk in American University of Beirut the summer after I graduated. I had moved back home to Lebanon, so I attended the talk and we caught up afterwards. 

We talked about his work and his lab seemed like the perfect fit for me to use my engineering background to work with chemists on materials science research. 

Having the opportunity to do a PhD and conduct research at a liberal arts institution provides the breadth that I was looking for as well.

I realized that it was my chance to create my own path rather than conform to a traditional doctoral education.

Being able to spend the first year of my PhD in New York before returning to Abu Dhabi was the perfect opportunity for me to develop my network and tune in on some of the most important questions and challenges in research and academia. 

What’s a typical day like for you?

I am usually up by 8:30am. I have some coffee and watch news before heading to the lab. I am typically in the lab before 10:30am. 

Depending on the work I am doing, I could be in the lab the whole day or doing work on my computer at my desk. If I don't need the lab, I usually try to do work in other spots or outside when the weather is nice. 

I grab lunch around 1pm in my apartment on campus and make more coffee. Some days are particularly busy with research meetings and other initiatives on campus that I am involved in so you can see me running around holding a white porcelain coffee cup. 

I usually leave the lab between 5-7pm depending on how much time went into meetings during the day. I also try to go to the gym at least four times a week after work and on the weekends, although it doesn’t always work out that nicely. 

I try to be in bed by midnight but it turned out that drinking coffee at 10pm was not such a great idea the older I get.

Jad Halabi, right, with his two sisters who are in the physics and biology field.

 What’s your mentor like?

I have a great relationship with my supervising faculty, Associate Professor of Chemistry Panče Naumov. He shows great interest in my personal and professional growth.

Professor Naumov was away last year after being named a Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard University, but still put great effort to Skype in frequently and stay in touch with my work. 

He visited often and discussed not only my current work, but also my ultimate goal during my time here at NYUAD. I had wanted to work with Professor Naumov before applying to the graduate program, so I joined knowing that I was going to select him as a supervisor. 

It is no secret that he has high expectations but that has pushed me to rise to the occasion and keep an open and flexible mindset when doing science.

Tips on finding the right mentor?

My advice to prospective students is to talk to as many people from the groups they are considering — especially PhD students, because experiences can be very different based on the person and their capacity.

  1. Pick your questions wisely to eliminate biases and try to get an objective feel of the group in the light of what matters most to you.
  2. Get a feel of the group's dynamics and whether people are close and work together, or do they work independently.
  3. Do not be scared to ask those direct questions and join a group whose direction aligns with yours.

Any other advice for future students?

First, you can read all you want about NYUAD, the graduate program, even visit the campus, and see the labs. But it is not until you live here that you realize what this campus brings together. The resources available on campus and the number of people curious and ready to indulge crazy ideas outside their fields of expertise is truly refreshing.

The NYUAD experience is really what you make of it. There's a lot available to you to play with and explore and an incredible support system that is willing to get involved.

You might have heard that a PhD is incredibly hard and that it is OK for a PhD to be overwhelming. Please discard the idea that a PhD experience has to be one of struggle and mental hardship.  A conducive work environment and talking it through with your peers and colleagues can help you have a great PhD experience. 

Also as part of the graduate student council, we are working on establishing more visibility of the graduate students on campus and continuously working on improving the graduate student experience. 

Although the campus is not located on the mainland, there are a lot of programs that you can be involved in that do all sorts of tours and activities. You just have to look for them.