Graduate Study
Ph.D. Student Spotlight
Ph.D. Student Spotlight: Anjali Thota

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Anjali Thota


Only in the third year of her Ph.D., Anjali Thota is already making headlines. In June, Thota was mentioned in a New York Times article about Professor Alessandro Rotta Loria’s groundbreaking study on underground climate change. Since then, she has spent the summer diligently conducting research on subsurface urban heat islands and preparing for the start of her fall quarter.


  1. Where are you from?

I am from the southern part of India, from a city called Hyderabad.

  1. Where did you get your undergrad degree, and what was your major? Do you have an MS?

I did my undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from Florida International University and graduated in 2019. I then received an M.S. degree in Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics from Columbia University in 2021.

  1. What attracted you to engineering?

As far as I can remember, I have always been interested in math and science. Megastructures was one of my favorite tv shows growing up and my curiosity to truly understand how such massive buildings and dams were constructed made me choose civil engineering. Part of the reason was also because my great-grandfather was a structural engineer back home in India. As my engineering journey progressed, I found myself more interested in the hidden world beneath our feet supporting all our infrastructure. Therefore, I made the choice to study geotechnical engineering.

  1. What attracted you to pursue a Ph.D. in your specialty area?

Initially I wanted to work in the multiscale and multidisciplinary area of geothermal energy applications. Then professor Rotta Loria introduced me to the project involving subsurface heat islands and I was immediately interested. I found the idea of being able to research about the thermal influence on geomechanics with renewable energy applications while performing both experimental and computational work very appealing.

  1. How do you explain your thesis research to a non-scientist?

Subsurface urban heat islands (SUHIs) are becoming a concerning issue in cities worldwide, as the shallow subsurface beneath urban areas is experiencing warming. This underground climate change has many adverse effects on the environment, public health, and transportation infrastructure. SUHIs are mainly caused by the continuous release of waste heat from buildings, infrastructure, and underground transportation systems, and heat diffusion from the atmosphere. The rising temperatures in the subsurface pose a hidden threat to urban areas as they can significantly impact the deformation of fine-grained soils and geotechnical structures.

My research aims to delve into the long-term effects of continuous thermal loading from subsurface heat islands on soils, specifically on fine grained soils such as clays. To address existing knowledge gaps, I employ a combination of experimental and theoretical methods. A unique sensing network deployed in Chicago’s Loop district helps in monitoring the effects of SUHIs in various underground environments. Soils are significantly affected by temperature variations showing reversible and irreversible deformations. To study the viscous effects under non isothermal conditions on the thermo-hydro-mechanical properties of soil, experiments are performed in the lab by applying heating rates that characterize SUHIs. The test results from the lab are then used in formulating and validating a non-isothermal viscous constitutive model that can capture the long-term behavior of soils This investigation goes beyond just subsurface urban heat islands and holds significant implications for various geotechnical challenges.

  1. What attracted you to NU?

The primary reason that attracted me to NU was a strong Geotechnical engineering program and an opportunity to study the subsurface of Chicago, one of the biggest cities in the world. I also heard wonderful things about the program from my professors at my previous universities who were also NU alums. The location was also a great bonus plus I really enjoy winter.

  1. What has been the highlight of your time at NU and CEE?

The highlight of my time at NU and CEE has been the opportunity to work in a very supportive and collaborative research environment. I am incredibly fortunate to have a phenomenal PI and amazing lab mates.

  1. What has been the most challenging aspect of your graduate school experience?

I handle multiple responsibilities, especially during my first year. As a PhD student, being able to perform research while being a TA, attending classes and seminars and mentoring students can be a little daunting. But as I gained more experience, my management strategies have improved.

  1. Can you tell us about your experience being mentored or mentoring others?

I have had great experience mentoring students and worked with MS students, undergrads and a high school student. Being able to mentor students from diverse educational backgrounds is an enriching experience as I was exposed to a wide range of perspectives. It helped me improve my own teaching skills and seeing them achieve their goals is a great personal satisfaction for me.

  1. What are your interests or hobbies outside of your research?

Outside of research, I enjoy playing tennis and painting. In my free time, I am always looking to visit new restaurants and dessert places. To better experience the graduate community, I also serve on the board of McCormick Graduate Leadership Council.