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Eric Shaqfeh: Strive for balance in teaching, family and life

A chemical engineering professor discusses how he learned to be a better educator: “I love supporting my graduate students and helping move them along their way.”

Eric Shaqfeh: Strive for balance in teaching, family and life

May 14, 2021
Eric Shaqfeh smiling

Eric Shaqfeh: “Nobody in my immediate family had gone to college, but I started cultivating dreams of going.” | Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

Eric Shaqfeh’s first teaching experience came early in life, when his high school chemistry teacher, impressed by his student’s studiousness, invited Shaqfeh to explain a particularly difficult chapter to the class.

For a young man whose unusual family background marked him as an outsider, that moment in the spotlight would turn out to have a profound impact in shaping his destiny as a scholar, researcher and mentor to graduate students.

Today, Shaqfeh is the Lester Levi Carter Professor in the Stanford School of Engineering. As a professor of chemical engineering and of mechanical engineering, Shaqfeh pioneers theories and experimental techniques in suspension mechanics that have implications for, among other things, drug transport delivery, predicting the flow of blood cells and platelets, and understanding the flow of materials in industrial processes like 3D printing. More than his research, Shaqfeh finds his purpose in teaching, and aims to model a healthy work-life balance for his students.

Rough Start

My parents met in San Francisco. She was from a small town in rural Pennsylvania. He was a Palestinian immigrant. When my mother became pregnant, they moved back in with her parents to start a family, but it was rough. The area was white and Protestant, and my father was a dark-skinned, Arab Muslim. Unable to get a good job in our town, he moved to Chicago and sent money back to support my brother and me. When mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized for a year, my father returned to take care of us, but they divorced when I was about 5 years old. After that, I only saw my father every other year or so, and I was 8 when I found out that I’d originally been named Ahmed Khalil Shaqfeh. But I’d never known that because everyone called me Rick. Only after my mother legally changed my name to Eric did I become who I am today. Childhood was rough. I shared a single bedroom in the attic with my mother and brother. Of course, being a golfer in a town of football players and wrestlers made me stand out even more, but that’s the kind of person I was – I liked puzzles, problems and intellectual challenges like chess. But I didn’t fit in.

Finding Escapes

When I was a teenager my mother moved us into an apartment near my high school, and it became my refuge. Nobody in my immediate family had gone to college, but I started cultivating dreams of going. In retrospect, I had no idea what it meant to go to college, and I don’t know where I got my confidence. Most of the guys in my high school went into the military. But my mother was accepting, and since we knew I’d have to get a scholarship, I did everything I could to stay at the top of my class. My chemistry teacher really encouraged me. My English, biology and physics teachers were also very supportive and wrote me letters of recommendation. I applied to three places, Princeton, MIT and Haverford, and, amazingly, got accepted at all three. My dream was MIT, but my visit experience was terrible. The city sounds kept me awake and my host kept hitting plastic golf balls against the walls. But the moment I stepped onto the Princeton campus, I thought it was the place that God had created here on Earth for human beings. I couldn’t believe they admitted me and made it financially possible for me to go. The out-of-pocket expenses for tuition and housing in my first year were $500. To earn book money, I worked in the music library and took two to three jobs every summer.

Humble Pie

My first year at Princeton was rough. My first midterm grades were three B’s and a C. That was crushing. I had never gotten anything below an A in high school but my experience couldn’t compare to the quality of education that other students had received. I just couldn’t go back with my tail between my legs, so I buckled down. I’d been playing golf to try to get on the college team, but I gave that up. I got a free tutor because I was on financial aid. I’d enrolled in several advanced classes because I’d taken the AP tests in high school and scored well, but I dropped back. The only advanced class I stayed in was chemistry. By the end of the semester, I had caught up and was doing well, and I chose to major in chemical engineering because the energy crisis was happening and I knew that a chemical engineer could get a job anywhere. It was a foregone conclusion in my family that I was going to work for an oil or chemical company and climb the ladder. But in my junior year, the professor who was teaching a fluid mechanics class pulled me aside and told me that I would possibly be an academic, and that he was confident I would get into graduate school. He went on to say that if I was admitted, they would pay me to get a degree. That helped me warm up to the idea, because teaching was considered unstable unless you got tenure. What finally made the decision clear in my mind was my industrial engineering job the summer after my junior year that felt a bit boring and regimented. Teaching seemed more exciting, and it felt like I would be giving back to others. So, I decided to pursue a graduate degree with the goal of becoming a professor.

A Desire to Teach

I applied to a few graduate schools, and when I got to visit Stanford I had that same feeling of awe as when I’d first visited Princeton. But my mom was crestfallen. She couldn’t understand why I had postponed getting a good job and was going to school again all the way out in California. Even when she learned that they would pay me, it was still hard for her to accept. But I turned out to be incredibly lucky when Andreas Acrivos took me into his fluid dynamics lab. Andy is emeritus now but he was one of the world leaders in the field. I was a successful graduate student. I liked the research, and had always been good at it, but the best part was being a teaching assistant. I discovered again just how much I loved teaching, and was even more set on becoming a professor. But I applied for 15 teaching jobs and got no offers. Not a single one. I was so disappointed. I did end up winning a postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge and went to England. I had a great time there, and when I came back I made my family happy by getting an industry job with Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.

Rediscovering Family and Stanford

By the time I came back to New Jersey I was married. My wife and I had met at Princeton, but started to date while I was at Stanford and she was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. We bought a house and had our first baby and started to raise a family. I took my wife’s last name, Garrido, as my middle name, and she did the same with mine, something my kids later hated because it made their last names so long. Living close to Princeton was also a reminder that, during my undergraduate days, I had learned that my father was living nearby and had reached out to him. He told me that he had remarried and that I had two half-brothers. I was shocked because I hadn’t known any of this. But the moment I saw my half-brothers, I realized that they had my laugh and my voice, and we claimed each other as siblings. At the same time as I was becoming a parent on my own, the breakup of the AT&T monopoly was creating turmoil at Bell Laboratories, which was supposed to have been the safe choice. After a big discussion with my wife, she gave me the go-ahead to apply for academic jobs again. I got some nibbles but the real break came at a conference where a senior faculty member from the Stanford chemical engineering department told me that Andy Acrivos had just left and that they needed someone in my area. Around the middle of the conversation, I realized he was inviting me to apply, and my body got all warm, and I told myself to be cool, but I was so excited. I turned down all my other job offers and came here.

Finding Balance

Looking back, what helped make me successful as an academic was that I was, and still am, ridiculously focused. But it also got in the way of being the best teacher I could be. When I was a young faculty member, I published a book of poetry. But I quickly stopped doing anything that wasn’t related to my job, and became one-dimensional and unbalanced, and soon I was teaching graduate students to be unbalanced. Becoming a parent forced me to step back and examine what a healthy life looked like. At first I was a terrible parent. I was still running away from my past, and my professional identity was all tied up in solving little intellectual problems. I was not a good father; I didn’t have any appropriate skills. But as my kids got older, I was able to relate to their struggles, and they could tell me when I was being a little too much. I became a much better parent, which helped me become a better mentor. I love supporting my graduate students and helping move them along their way. To be honest, I never push my students into academia. If they do want to pursue it, I tell them to prepare themselves and their partners not to see too much of each other. To this day I still struggle for family balance. One thing that helped was taking up golf again. I play once or twice a week, and I taught my wife to play as well, and she loves it – way more than I do, actually – so that’s something we can do together.