Faculty and students in one of Clemson University’s largest departments will start the fall semester with a new leader whose varied experience has taken him from NASA and the National Science Foundation to the founding of five start-ups and the halls of academia.

Atul Kelkar is the new chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the D.W. Reynolds Distinguished Professor.

Atul Kelkar is the new chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Atul Kelkar is the new chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Kelkar said he will strive to promote excellence, good social relationships and long-lasting bonds between faculty and students.

“These are our future alumni,” he said. “If someone asks, ‘what was your best time in life,’ I want them to say ‘my time at Clemson.’”

Enrollment in mechanical engineering has increased more than 54 percent in the past 10 years and at 1,038 students is one of the largest departments on campus.

The department’s faculty, students and alumni have amassed several recent honors. This year alone, three junior faculty members won CAREER awards from the National Science Foundation.

Kelkar’s hiring follows a nationwide search. Richard Figliola, who is retiring, has served as acting chair.

Anand Gramopadhye, chair of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said that Kelkar brings outstanding research and administrative credentials to his new position.

“Dr. Kelkar’s vision, wide-ranging experience and impeccable credentials position him for success,” Gramopadhye said. “I congratulate Dr. Kelkar on his new job and welcome him to Clemson.”

Kelkar has for the past two years worked as a program director at the National Science Foundation, where he co-led the Dynamics, Control, and System Diagnostics Program. He also served as one of the program directors on two NSF-wide, crosscutting programs: the National Robotics Initiative and Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation.

He was also a professor at Iowa State University.

Kelkar said that he sought the Clemson job because he wanted a position that would allow him to leverage his experience in entrepreneurship, the private sector, academia and government.

“The best place to be is a university that is upcoming,” he said. “Clemson is trying to move up fast. I wanted to get in a leadership position where things are happening.”

Prior to joining the National Science Foundation, Kelkar was the associate chair for research and entrepreneurship for Iowa State’s mechanical engineering department. He also served as professor-in-charge for industry research and entrepreneurship for Iowa State’s College of Engineering.

Kelkar has more than 130 publications and sustained research funding averaging $600,000 per year. His lifetime total so far exceeds $9 million.

He has founded five start-up companies in areas ranging from smart materials to educational software. One of his start-ups, VSI Aerospace, worked with NASA on a hypersonic vehicle project.

Kelkar was employed from 1993-95 at NASA Langley Research Center as a national research council associate.  He devoted most of his time at the agency to spacecraft modeling and control. His projects with the agency included work on the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter.

Kelkar has a Bachelor of Science from the University of Poona and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Old Dominion University, all in mechanical engineering.

Kelkar plans to live in Clemson with his wife, Kshitija. Their daughter, Rucha, will be a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall.

In his free time, Kelkar enjoys playing tennis and Indian drums. In Iowa, he played charity gigs with a band, Chai Tunes, named for the tea the band members drank while they practiced.

“Those two things keep my sanity– music and exercise,” he said.