As an engineer, researcher, and entrepreneur, Ajit Chaudhari ‘91 is endlessly fascinated by how the human body moves. He was one of the first students to attend Wellington, beginning in 1982, and his experience at a startup school inspired him to seek out a similar workplace culture where he has flourished from thinking outside the box. Currently an associate professor of physical therapy at The Ohio State University as well as founder and chief technical officer of Perfect Practice, Inc., Chaudhari was kind enough to give us a glimpse into how he is shaping the world.
You are a mechanical engineer working in the field of biomechanics at The Ohio State University. What exactly is biomechanics?
Biomechanics is the study of how forces affect living things, and how living things create forces. One way to think about it is that we take tools developed by mechanical engineers, physicists, and others to design, analyze, and understand mechanical systems like cars, bridges, and airplanes, and then we apply those tools to analyze and understand the most complicated mechanical systems on earth - living things. By doing this with humans, we can get unique insights into why people get hurt, why the body breaks down, how to recover from injury or disease, and how to improve performance.
What type of research are you doing?
I am focused on how people move and how that relates to musculoskeletal and neurological injuries, risk of injuries, and treatment of those injuries. Whether we are examining how people stand and balance, how they walk, or how they play their sport, we stick little reflective dots on their bodies or put electricity-sensing electrodes over their muscles or use other types of sensors, and then have them do their activities, and from that information we can estimate how hard their muscles are working and how much force is acting at each joint.
What are some of the devices you have designed? What are you most proud of?
I have designed several pieces of software that help us do the analyses I mentioned above, but I have also developed new tools to make it easier for more people (especially non- engineers) to collect high-quality objective data on how people move in different environments. I’m most proud of developing those tools, because I think they are potentially going to have a huge impact if and when physicians, physical therapists, coaches, and people themselves use them broadly to stay healthier throughout their lives.
How have curiosity, creative-thinking, and resiliency played a role in your career?
I draw on those aspects of my personality every day. Every day! One of the biggest reasons I chose a career as a professor at a research-intensive university is that I love new challenges and asking new questions. In research, every question we ask is a new one no one has ever answered before, and curiosity is a big driver of those questions. When you’re trying to do things no one has done before, you’ve got to be creative because if the solution was obvious, someone else would have already found it. And if there’s one thing I have learned above all, it is to enjoy and learn from failure. There are so many possibilities out there that you should always be ready to jump from that failure to the next possible solution or the next possible question.
You are the founder and chief technical officer of Perfect Practice, Inc. What are some of the rewards and challenges of being an entrepreneur?
For me, the biggest reward so far has been learning a ton about things I never thought I’d ever be interested in learning. Business plans, filing taxes, how to get things manufactured, the list goes on and on. The biggest challenge of being an entrepreneur, I think, is figuring out how to turn your idea into something people actually want. We haven’t figured that out yet, but we are trying!
You have played an important role in the lives of two Wellington alumnae, Andrea Wanamaker ‘08 and Aashika Katapadi ‘15, as a mentor. Both Andrea and Aashika have worked with you in your lab. What type of work were they doing, and what are they doing now?
It has been really fun having other Wellington alumni work in the lab. Andrea got her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering with me, focused on understanding what the value of high-tech computer controlled prostheses is to the people who have them and to the health care system. Andrea became a “Big Data” person in my lab working on a huge dataset from the Ohio Bureau of Worker’s Compensation, and based on the skills she learned in the lab was able to get a job with JP Morgan Chase as a data scientist.
Aashika has been in the lab since she was a junior in high school, and she’s worked on a number of projects from looking at how people who play asymmetric sports run and walk to validating some of our motion measurement tools so we can test research participants doing many more activities in the same visit to the lab. She’s applying to MD and DO schools now with the long-term goal of becoming a physician.
In your role as director of diversity and inclusion at The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Services, can you explain some of the work you have done and what you would like to accomplish next?
Being a director of diversity and inclusion has been really rewarding because even though it is only a small part of my job I can see the impacts our efforts are having on a regular basis. The work I’m doing falls into three main categories:
• We want to make the culture of the school more inclusive.
• We want to make the student population of the school more diverse.
• Taking the recruiting a little farther, we want to increase outreach to the community, especially kids.
When Wellington first opened in 1982, you were a 4th grader. What do you remember from that first day or the first year?
The hardwood floors in the old Fishinger Road building were beautiful - they had just been refinished in preparation for the new school opening, and they gleamed. In the dining room, every lunch was served family style, where we’d pass our plates up to the teacher at the head of the table and then pass the plates back.
What sports or extracurricular activities did you participate in at Wellington that had the most profound impact on you?
The three most profound activities I participated in were In The Know, varsity basketball, and Science Olympiad. In The Know with Mrs. Shimberg built many lifelong friendships and a greater appreciation for humanities. Basketball was a never-ending exercise in character-building...it felt like an incredible accomplishment to have the first winning season in boys basketball history our senior year, and it was a very valuable experience knowing that I was not the most talented person on the team, but I could still find a way to meaningfully contribute to the team’s success. Science Olympiad ended up having an incredibly profound effect on my life trajectory by encouraging me to try mechanical engineering.
How has your experience as a Wellington student influenced who you are today?
One of the biggest influences on me was the fact that it was a new place, without any traditions or institutional memory. So we created it together - the teachers and the students built that culture from the ground up. Ever since, I have always gravitated to other “startup” types of environments where I have been able to shape culture rather than having to stay within someone else’s box. than having to stay within someone else’s box.
You are very involved at Wellington to this day, visiting regularly to speak to students and share your story. What advice would you give young people who may be anxious about big life decisions, including their college choice?
I think the best advice I can give to those who are anxious about big life decisions including their college choice is that you should do what feels right for you in terms of providing what you need to be successful and feel good about it. The fit is so much more important than the prestige.
You have also talked to Wellington students about the importance of studying humanities, even if they are primarily interested in science. Can you explain why?
When human resources professionals at the biggest companies in the world are asked what makes employees successful, even at tech companies like Google and Apple, they invariably say that it is those “soft skills” that separate the most successful from the others. Communication (oral and written), professionalism, teamwork, empathy, resilience, curiosity, things like that. Humanities is where you learn about other people, how they have struggled, and how they think. And you gain a better understanding of yourself too.
You have two children, Asha and Casey, with your wife, Lise. What does a fun family day look like?
A fun family day usually involves water of some kind, whether that is paddle boarding, kayaking, or swimming in the summer (especially in Maine), or snow in the winter for sledding and building snow-people. There’s probably some reading with a nice cup of tea or cold drink too, as all four of us are voracious readers.
How can today’s Wellington students shape the world?
Just be yourself, find your passions, and treat other people well every day, with respect and compassion. Acknowledge and appreciate your good fortune and privilege to be at Wellington, in Columbus, in the United States of America, and know that you can leverage that fortune, privilege, and passion to make the world a better place one kind word or hard effort at a time. We need more of that positive energy everywhere in the world.