Sameer Singhal '95: keep learning

Posted by Rebecca Moore - 24 August, 2016

It is a Randolph tradition to have an alumni speaker at Inservice prior to the opening of a new school year. This year's speaker was Sameer Singhal '95. Sameer is Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of CFD Research Corporation. He has worked as PI and Co-PI for several projects on Bio-Battery (about which he gave a TEDx talk) and other technologies, funded by DoD and Industry. In his current role, he manages the technical development and commercialization for a portfolio of biomedical and energy technologies. Prior to CFDRC, he spent 7 years at Nitronex Corporation, a semiconductor startup in Raleigh N.C. Sameer has over 30 publications in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings. Additionally he has six issued patents and eight patents pending. He received his B.S. from Georgia Tech and M.S. from Stanford University both in Materials Science and Engineering. 

The following remarks, which Sameer shared with our faculty, correlate with several strands of the School's 2020 Vision, which Head of School Jay Rainey will discuss this year in a series of 2020 Talks, to which any interested parties are invited.      

SS_sr_portraitI used to think of myself as a young alumnus, but at Interim last year I had some Randolph students over to see me at work and I realized I had graduated before they were born, so I don't think young alumni quite fits anymore.

I thought I would walk you through my life and tell you how Randolph helped get me where I am today, and then offer some thoughts from a professional perspective about how the School can even better prepare students.

I was born in London, England, while my dad was finishing his Ph.D. We moved to Huntsville when I was about a year old so he could open up an R&D branch of his professor's company

I went to elementary school across the street at Jones Valley, before the 1989 tornado. I went to Huntsville Middle for a little bit. Around this time, in the 6th grade, two very interesting things happened to my family. My dad decided to quit his job and start a company, CFD Research Corporation, where I work now, and my parents found out they were going to have another child, my sister, Neena, who graduated from Randolph in 2008. Both of these life events happened right when I was in 6th grade. To me, that's not really the best time to start paying two private school tuitions—I forgot to mention that I have a twin, Anuj, who graduated with me.

I asked my mom about this a few years ago, why they made that decision. Her logic was that even though financially it was going to be really difficult for them, they thought that the increased busyness of the family made it a necessity. During elementary school she had a lot of time. She went to the school all the time, she gave us extra homework almost every night. She didn't work then, but when my dad started the company he also enlisted my mom into being his CFO, VP of everything non-technical, so she was actually working 60 hours a week while he was working 80, so because of that, they were entrusting and relying on Randolph to carry out the lessons she had already instilled in us. They were counting on Randolph to fulfill its mission of nurturing all and fostering education and providing a safe environment. I still think that's why a lot of families send their kids to Randolph, to be honest. It tends to be a lot of successful families, not just because they have money, but because you have two parents who work extremely hard and they're involved in leadership positions throughout Huntsville and throughout the community. Some people think you're outsourcing raising your kids. I don't look at it like that at all.

I want my kids to see how hard I work, I want them to see how not only do I work long hours, but I spend time volunteering and giving back to the community and serving on boards. It might sound bad, but I want them to know that they might be the most important thing to me, but they're not the center of my universe and everything can't revolve around them; there's a lot more to everything.

I really like how you describe Randolph as student-centered learning, I think that's exactly what it is. It's putting the focus on the students to learn for themselves and that’s a big thing—that's what high school teaches you—how to think, and how to learn for yourself. You're continually learning, I'm learning right now. I think that's the best thing that Randolph did for me—it taught me that spirit of always wanting to learn, always wanting to teach myself. If you're only learning for the grade or only learning because your parent said you have to or you'd get a $20 allowance if you get an A, that's not the right reason to be learning.

I joined Randolph in 7th grade. I've got lots of memories, of course. Everyone went through Mrs. Sharma's 7th grade history class—that was a rite of passage. That was really a lesson in teaching you how to think, we took copious pages and pages of notes and learned everything to do with history.

One of the big moments for me in 7th grade was math class. Mary Shepard Hughes was my math teacher and we has this MathCounts team that was essentially a math competition. Most people had been at Randolph since Kindergarten, and I was the new kid. Everyone knew these three kids (Kenny, Richard, and Jason) would be picked—so the big question was who was going to get the fourth spot. I didn't even plan to try out, you know, I was new here, but Ms. Hughes kept telling me I could do it. I tried out and I actually made it. And I feel like that was one of the first times in my life that I really thought maybe I am smart, I am something kind of special, so that actually meant a lot to me. We went on to win regional and I think we finished  in the top five in the state, which was one of the best results Randolph had gotten at the time. I think its these small moments that really make a difference in our lives.

After speaking, Sameer visited with three of the teachers he had mentioned, Karen Van Bebber, Steve McGuffey, and Sue Marshall. After speaking, Sameer visited with three of the teachers he mentioned, Karen Van Bebber, Steve McGuffey, and Sue Marshall.

Mrs. Van Bebber's Chemistry class was another one—one of the things we did was bending glass and then we had to make something out of it. And a schoolmate of mine, Neil Sapra, and I made something called "Winged Confusion," which was basically a bunch of glass stuck together, this flying wing type thing. We hung it up in the classroom thinking that she would take it down that night after we left, but she left it there and it actually stayed hanging from the ceiling for two or three months. It fell one day and shattered all over the floor, luckily no one was under it! That assignment involved creativity, not just doing the experiment, following the instructions on the board, cleaning it up, and never thinking about it again. It was being creative and getting to do things on your own and that Mrs. Van Bebber cared enough to leave it up there.

Tennis was also a big deal in my life. I played from 8th grade until 12th grade. Mr. McGuffey was the Athletic Director back then. Ms. Marshall was always a constant with both the boys and the girls teams. In the middle of my time here we had a coach called Dylan Black, a relatively young guy. He was fresh out of school when he started teaching at Randolph, so we had a lot of adventures with him. The courts here were being resurfaced so we went to the courts at his apartment complex to do our tennis practices. And his wife, Mindy, would actually cook dinner for us after a lot of practices. We traveled a lot for sports and we always stopped at Cracker Barrel on the way home. He would sometimes tell them he was the bus driver and eat free food, but my favorite story is one time the waitress asked him if we were his kids and we all said, yes, of course, and he was like how old do you think I am? Because we were 16 and he was 24. We were calling him dad for the next month. When he left Randolph, at the going away ceremony, we gave him shares in Cracker Barrel.

Another big thing for me was AP classes. Mr. Edwards was the headmaster and he taught AP US History to the 11th grade. He lived in the Headmaster's House on Drake Avenue [now Randolph House]. Obviously none of this [Garth Campus] was here then, not even that big building in the middle of the Drake Campus. We would walk to his house every day after school and watch these Civil War tapes for weeks and weeks and weeks. Again, just another one of the things I will always remember about Randolph.

My point is that there are all these things that might seem insignificant to you as teachers, but these are the things that the students remember for a lifetime. It's been 21 years since I graduated.

Another thing was Dr. Brown's AP Physics class. He gave us a research project to build something. He said the first one to finish it could skip the final. So Neil Sapra, Chris Eidt and I did a group project. We found his address in the phone book – this is before Google -- and drove our project to his house – again no Google Maps, just a lot of driving around - on Sunday afternoon to show it to him and be the first ones to finish, even though he made us wait until Monday to hand it in.

But again that's the encouragement we had to learn. I think in a regular school it would just be like everyone turns in their project on this day and you get a grade, but he threw out this extra incentive.

hightowerAnother thing that was quite personal to me was in 11th grade. My dad had heart surgery down at UAB so I missed a lot of school. I was driving to Birmingham to see him, driving back for classes. We had a teacher for English, Mrs. Hightower, who was the one everyone was kind of scared of. And I had to go to her to say that I couldn't get my work done. I was really scared to have this conversation with her. Because even though I was there, I wasn't really there, and I kind of needed a break, and I remember practically crying in her office, which was really embarrassing, and she just looked at me—remember this is the strictest teacher at Randolph—and said, "You know it's not a big deal, you've always gotten your work done. I trust you." And it was really those words—I trust you, just make it up whenever you feel like you're ready—I don't think that's the kind of thing that would have happened at another school. They're very insistent that you can only miss 10 days with excused absences or this and that. She was just very open to that. And really that trust, that the teacher is able to trust the student and the students feel a lot more freedom and trust from the faculty.

So that's my story at Randolph. It's trust and it's a feeling that you control your own education and you can make a difference.

After Randolph, I got my bachelor's from Georgia Tech in material science and engineering, then I want to Stanford to get a materials science master's. I was dating my future wife, Ruchi, from Georgia Tech at the time. She ended up going to N.C. State for grad school, so I moved to Raleigh and worked for Nitronex, a semiconductor start-up, I was about the 10th employee and when I left I was managing a group of about five people.

Sameer Singhal on the TEDx stage, 2012. Photo by Larkin Grant, Our Valley Events Sameer Singhal '95 on the TEDx stage, 2012
Photo by Larkin Grant, Our Valley Events

We had our first son, Akash, who is nine years old, and about a year after that we decided to move back to Huntsville. I started working for CFDRC, the company my dad started in the basement when I was in 6th grade, where I am now. We develop cutting edge technologies like the Bio-Battery I spoke about right here in this building for TEDx a couple of years ago. I have progressed at CFDRC from manager to director to vice president to COO. I want to pass on some of the lessons I have about leading people at work and interacting in the real world. Teachers are the leaders of students and you're also raising the next generation of Huntsville’s leaders. I really look at that as one of the missions of the Randolph, to raise the next generation of leaders.

In my mind, the definition of leadership is—and I've read this somewhere else, but I really like this definition—is inspiring yourself and others to take positive action towards a goal. I think that inspiring the word is really important—it's not just telling someone what to do. In my field they always talk about the difference between a manager and a leader. A manager tells you how to something right but a leader tells you the right thing to do. So anybody can run an experiment the right way, but if it wasn't the right experiment to run then it was a waste of time. Leadership is knowing the right thing to do and it's inspiring and teaching people how to be leaders one day.

In addition to leadership, an important thing is communication. The three most important things in business are communication, communication, and communication. If I was going to give any advice to the teachers it would be to weave communication into the curriculum: oral presentation, PowerPoints. It's a shame that people don't have time to read 50-page reports any more, but I do a lot of work for the government and I talk to these senior executive service members and they say that if they don't get what you're saying in the first five sentences they're not going to read the rest of what you write. Don't send me something that's ten pages because I will look at the size of the document and I won't even read the first page. It's got to be one page, front and back.

We live in a world of 140 characters. I don't necessarily agree with it, but you have to be able to say things really concisely and get your point across. So any way to reinforce that in the curriculum would be good to do. Even in math, writing out equations and long definitions is fine, but you've got to be able to explain in words why an equation or postulation is true.

The other thing is trust relationships—this is kind of a business lesson—people work with people they trust. You're bidding on a five–million–dollar contract, so the ideas and the science have to be sound, but at the end of the day, someone is agreeing to work with you for two or three years and meet once a quarter to review progress, in essence they're investing in you just as much or more than the specific technology or the company. It is an example of the expression, "Respect is given, trust is earned."  Ms. Hightower trusted me with that decision to give me a break on my work for that quarter and that made me trust her a lot, too.

And the last thing I want to emphasize is research. I want to talk about the multi-disciplinary nature of the world today. This technology up here, that I spoke about when I gave the TEDx talk, is what we call the Bio-Battery. It's an enzymatic fuel cell; it uses enzymes as catalysts and converts sugar to energy. I've got five people working on that project: myself, a material scientist; a chemical engineer, a chemist, a biochemist, and a mechanical engineer. All five of us have different degrees. I think it's really becoming that way in a lot of fields, where you need collaboration across disciplines to be successful. As much as you can encourage people to work together from different disciplines that is something that could really help the students.

I am on the board of the Mechanical Engineering Department of UAH and I have been trying to help them integrate different engineering disciplines into a single design project so it's not just four mechanical engineers working on a project, but one mechanical engineer, one chemical engineer and an electrical engineer working together. I know it's harder in high school, but if there are ways you could have AP Chemistry and AP Biology work together on a project or at least share knowledge that would be a good experience.

I think Randolph is known in the community as being where you educate the leaders of Huntsville and the kids of the leaders of Huntsville, that nurtures and teaches our next generation. In my mind, Randolph is already fulfilling that mission in serving Huntsville. I do encourage you to recognize that power you have to lead and influence these kids and this next generation of leaders.

I am really surprised by how many of my classmates have come back to Huntsville. It seems like the later you graduated the more that come back. Of my sister's class, 2008, I feel like >50% of them are back.

Lastly, my philosophy of education is that it teaches you how to learn, and then you continue learning for the rest of your life.

I think back to something I learned in Ms. Sharma's class, that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. That's stuck in my head forever. I'm never going to use that, it's never going to help me win a contract, but again, learning how to learn, how to memorize, how to store information, that's something that you use for the rest of your life. So the world is always changing, teaching methods always change, and I encourage you to continue adapting. Try to weave in more about communication and work on this idea of getting your point across concisely, to foster collaboration, and have students do work that is more multidisciplinary, those are some of the big changes that I see in the world.

I really want to thank Randolph for all it's done for me and all that it's done for the Huntsville community.

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Topics: 7th grade, Academics, creativity, family, friends, Huntsville, interdisciplinary, math, parents, professional development, science, teachers, tennis, People


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