Sloan Mentor Spotlight
Nancy Diaz-Elsayed is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and PI of the Smart and Sustainable Systems Laboratory (S3 Lab) at USF. She was appointed to her present position after serving as a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Dr. Nancy Diaz-Elsayed earned both her M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley. Previously, she received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. Her current research interests include Future Manufacturing; Smart and Sustainable Systems; Data-Driven Modeling. Since her arrival to USF, Dr. Diaz-Elsayed’s research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Interior, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the U.S. Department of Defense.
While at UC Berkeley, Dr. Diaz-Elsayed was a recipient of an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Graduate Scholarship, National Academies’ Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, UC Chancellor’s Fellowship for Graduate Study, HENAAC Top Graduate Student Leadership Award, Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award, as well as other honors. Throughout her career, she has served as a mentor for graduate students, undergraduates, and high school students. For the past two years, Dr. Diaz-Elsayed has been a member of the UCEM Leadership team focusing on research to define and disseminate best practices (recruitment, mentoring, and professional development) of the 15-year USF Sloan Foundation PhD initiative. Recently, she responded to questions from Michelle Henderson, President of the UCEM Student Leadership Committee.
1. How would you describe your research including the broader impact?
My research applies data-driven modeling to the design of smart and sustainable systems. My research has spanned discrete and continuous processes in the manufacturing and wastewater sectors, respectively. As our research group considers the three dimensions of sustainability (the environment, economy, and society), we take a holistic approach to the design of engineered systems to help reduce environmental impacts, and facilitate access to decision-making tools for small and large organizations alike.
2. Can you discuss your journey as a researcher and current position at USF?
My graduate research was in sustainable manufacturing with a focus on energy reduction strategies for subtractive processes. Once I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2013, I worked in industry for a few years (remotely out of Tampa) and I found that water management was very important to our customers for their sustainability strategy. I started working as a researcher within USF’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and complemented my expertise with water/wastewater management and resource recovery. In the fall of 2021, I transitioned to USF’s Department of Mechanical Engineering as an Assistant Professor.
3. What do you find most rewarding about your work as a professor? What makes this
work meaningful and interesting to you?
Working with students if my favorite part of my role. During my career, I have worked with many students that were starting research for the first time, and each student is unique in their interests and prior experiences. It is especially rewarding to see how one’s curiosity can be a major motivation when tasked with answering challenging research questions. I enjoy supporting my students during their journey and celebrating their successes as they make progress.
4. Did you have mentors early in your career who inspired you?
Certainly. Mentors have been very important for me at each stage of my career. They have provided tremendous guidance for different aspects of my work including teaching, research, manufacturing, professional development, and work-life balance.
5. What have been the most important qualities in the mentors that you’ve had? Also,
can you discuss your own approach to mentoring?
Their ability to personalize their guidance for me as an individual. I wear many “hats”: I am a mechanical engineer, a manufacturing scientist, a teacher, a sustainability researcher, a mother of two young children, a woman of color, a daughter/aunt/sister to relatives on the other side of the country… Each role has unique responsibilities, and navigating them simultaneously is challenging. I share some of these hats with my mentors, and their approach to these roles as well as their guidance has helped me navigate my own journey.
My mentoring approach largely stems from the mentorship I have received. I also try to tailor my mentorship to students based on where they are in their studies and area of expertise. For example, in the development of technical skills, this means that when a student is struggling, I need to take a step back and identify what additional training/guidance is necessary to help them progress. If no formal training is readily available, then I formulate a plan to help them attain that particular skillset and move forward in their research.
6. What are the attributes or skills that you believe are important to have as a professor?
Also, why would you encourage students to consider careers in academia?
1) A good listener to be attentive to student needs, 2) creativity as you will need to generate ideas to obtain funding and adapt your research direction, and 3) endurance/perseverance as there will be challenging times, and you will need to be able to advance through these difficult times to later embrace the fruits of your labor.
Research can be very challenging and rewarding. The work does not get mundane, and a career in academia provides flexibility in your work and in the topics you investigate.
7. How do you like to spend your time outside of research and maintain a work/life
I like to spend my time outdoors with my family. I love to go on nature walks and bike rides with them, and visit the many beautiful beaches Florida has to offer. The Florida flora and fauna make for a very enjoyable experience on these trips.
8. Why do you believe increased diversity and inclusion in your discipline and overall
in STEM is important?
In STEM, we never work independently. We are trying to solve problems for our society and to improve human welfare. In doing so, we are solving problems for a diverse population and need a good understanding of their needs. Having diversity in our teams helps us better understand the needs of the people we serve, and also brings about better solutions overall as we are not imposing restrictions on potentially transformative technological solutions.
To learn more about Dr. Diaz-Elsayed’s research and career journey, please visit: