Mentors Inspire Lives of Discovery

This article was previously published on The University of Texas at Dallas’ News Center on February 21, 2012.

University Laboratories Where New Ideas Are Born Also Create New Generations of  Scientists

UT Dallas freshman Max Grunewald entered the NanoExplorers Program as a high school student. He is interested in renewable energy.

It was pretty brazen of then-16-year-old Ray Baughman, drenched and wearing his Sunday best, to trek around the University of Pittsburgh one rainy summer day in 1958 making cold calls on various professors by knocking on doors.

But Baughman had an earnest request.

He was looking for a summer job in an honest-to-goodness laboratory. Maybe—if he was very lucky—he’d even get a chance to do some hands-on research.

Growing up on a turkey farm in western Pennsylvania, Baughman had a notion early on that he wanted to be a scientist. He figured, where better to look for work than at a research university?

Dr. George A. Jeffrey, the professor of chemistry and physics who answered Baughman’s knock on the door that day, might have turned away a high school kid. Jeffrey might have said Baughman was too young, too inexperienced or simply too much trouble to train—that there wasn’t enough time to devote to the task of helping him in the first place.

This story appears in the Winter 2012 edition of UT Dallas Magazine. The full edition is available online.

Fifty-three years later, Dr. Ray Baughman—the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry, director of the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute, a recently elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, and one of the most cited scientific authors in the world—attributes his formidable success to the day Jeffrey allowed a skinny, rain-soaked kid from a tiny rural town into his lab.

“That experience crystallized my early desire to become a scientist,” Baughman said. “And it was the kind of serendipitous event that made me aware of the importance of mentorship and academic research.” Meeting Jeffrey changed the course of Baughman’s life.

Dr. Ray Baughman

Research laboratories in academic settings are critical to efforts to better understand the world around us and beyond. These environments offer the building blocks and training grounds necessary to develop young scientists. Sometimes, such environments grow within a university setting over long periods of time as a result of the serendipitous accumulation of people and resources. But serendipity—while it makes for great stories and in Dr. Baughman’s case, a great scientist—isn’t enough. UT Dallas works to foster an environment that actively supports students and faculty forming research partnerships. By pairing excellent faculty with promising students, mentorships not unlike the one that shaped Baughman’s career can flourish.

Teen Scientist

Take Max Grunewald. An outstanding student at St. Mark’s School of Texas, Grunewald’s opportunity to study in a UT Dallas lab came home to him with his dad.

Doctoral student Prakash Sista and senior Sussana Elkassih work with
Dr. Mihaela Stefan (far right), assistant professor of chemistry, researching semiconducting polymers.

“My dad sat next to Dr. Baughman at a banquet, and they began talking about their jobs,” Grunewald said. “Dr. Baughman told my dad about his research. [My dad] told him about me, and Dr. Baughman said we should look into some of the programs for younger students.”

The George A. Jeffrey NanoExplorers Program—named for Baughman’s mentor—introduces high school students to nanotechnology and encourages them to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Grunewald, like all students accepted to the program, worked in a lab with UT Dallas faculty where he was encouraged to learn how the lab operated and to form his own research interests
and projects.

“Before I even started, I knew I wanted to study alternative energy and ways we can transition to renewable energy,” Grunewald said.

He came to the program the summer between his junior and senior years in high school. There, he listened to a presentation given by UT Dallas faculty members outlining their research.

“I heard a speech on super capacitors and hybrid energy storage devices,” he said. “I knew right then and there I wanted to work in that lab.”

Dr. John Ferraris

That lab belongs to Dr. John Ferraris, a 36-year veteran faculty member at UT Dallas and head of the chemistry department. Grunewald treated his experience with Ferraris in NanoExplorers like a full-time job. He spent hours learning lab etiquette and procedures in preparation for college, which was still a year away.

“Our research here is very much at the interface of chemistry, biology, physics and engineering,” Ferraris said. “We encourage collaboration between departments and among our students. There are so many areas that chemistry touches. We don’t want to be closed off.”

The opportunity to reach out to fellow NanoExplorers, UT Dallas students and faculty played a major role in convincing Grunewald to attend UT Dallas. He was accepted into the 2011 Eugene McDermott Scholars Program, the University’s premier scholarship opportunity aimed at very high-achieving students in all areas of study.

“I already knew that UT Dallas allows you to be more directly involved in work and research,” Grunewald said. “Undergraduates are exposed to interconnectedness in all different fields,
and it made perfect sense for me to come here.”

Now a freshman, Grunewald is weighing his options carefully. His diverse research interests include economic policy, Chinese studies and, of course, renewable energy.

Investing in Research

The infrastructure necessary for experiences like Grunewald’s is expensive. And creating a robust university research engine that can power scientific breakthroughs requires a fairly specific set of parts, say those with experience in the field.

Francisco Garcia (front) has earned two Undergraduate Research Scholar Awards while working with Dr. Marco Atzori, associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

“Universities are centers for learning—learning for faculty as well as students,” said Dr. Robert Berdahl, interim president of the University of Oregon, past president of the Association of American Universities, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and former president of The University of Texas. In evaluating the quality of a university, “the quality of teaching, how well the findings of research are transmitted to students, is an important component of a successful university, but first and foremost, it is the quality of research that defines the measure of success of a research university.”

This does not mean that all institutions of higher education need to be research universities, he said. “But the unique role of universities is to push back the frontiers of knowledge and to train others to join in the process of discovering new knowledge or gaining a greater understanding of the known world. The faculty must itself be actively engaged in this learning process.” A faculty engaged in research creates an entire culture of learning for the university, Berhdal believes. “It defines the culture, which is one of open inquiry, curiosity-driven inquiry, challenging inherited knowledge in an effort to understand more or differently about the human and natural world.” Without this culture, and without the effort to advance understanding, “what we teach stagnates.”

Dr. Bruce Gnade

As research environments throughout the world become more competitive, Berdahl said, universities are judged by the quality of research being done, which begins with teaching.

“We live in a knowledge-based environment, where the level of economic development is based on innovation,” Berdahl added. “Paradigmatic breakthroughs, like the discovery of the structure of DNA or any other such revolution of understanding, require public investment.”

Recruiting and cultivating top faculty and students at UT Dallas often begins with grants for top-tier research projects. In only one year, from 2009 to 2010, UT Dallas received 572 new grant awards—more than double the number of the previous year. Funding awarded also increased by more than $20 million.

“Funding allows us to improve our infrastructure and equipment,” said Dr. Bruce Gnade, vice president for research. “It also enables us to recruit new students.”

Gnade points out that supporting these students with fellowships and research stipends is crucial in providing the best training and programs available.

One such student, Francisco Garcia, applied for the most basic funding opportunity available through UT Dallas: an Undergraduate Research Scholar Award sponsored by Gnade’s office. Garcia was among 46 students in 2010 to receive $500 to cover costs related to his scientific interests. His latest research earned him a second Undergraduate Research Scholar Award in 2011.

Garcia’s path to UT Dallas began more than two decades ago with his family’s arduous journey from Mexico to a new life in the United States. These days, Garcia immerses himself in science every day. He revels in the high-tech surroundings of the UT Dallas campus and in the laboratories he frequents as he delves into the mysteries of neuroscience.

“My family and I came here as immigrants when I was very young, and when I first started college, I worked in restaurants and construction to pay for school,” Garcia said. “The whole time though, I always had a passion for studying the brain.” His passion and clear aptitude for neurobiology paired perfectly with exceptional research opportunities and scholarships available to underclassmen at UT Dallas.

Garcia’s project was guided by Dr. Marco Atzori, associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

“I’m especially interested in studying disorders such as autism, brain cancer and others, and that’s why I really appreciated this opportunity,” Garcia said. “I’m thankful for the opportunities given to me by Dr. Atzori to join his lab and be part of his research team.”

Dr. Marco Atzori

The research scholar award provides funding for a single semester for each student researcher. The program is paid for in part by support from corporate sponsors that have included Raytheon and Ericsson. The number of undergraduate projects sponsored under the annual program has more than doubled since its beginning in 2007. This fall, 70 students received funding for 69 undergraduate research projects.

“Without a doubt, [part of] what attracts students to UT Dallas is the research opportunity here—specifically in the sciences,” Atzori said. “The mentorships available here, particularly for undergraduate students, are unparalleled.”

Unique Opportunities

Sussana Elkassih, a senior who is double majoring in biochemistry and chemistry, began her lab work at UT Dallas much earlier than peers at other universities.

“I have friends at schools all over the state and country,” she said. “And when I tell them that I’m already in a research lab, they are so surprised. I know almost all of the faculty very well and I have an undergraduate mentor.”

lkassih works under the wing of one of UT Dallas’ National Science Foundation Career Grant recipients—Dr. Mihaela Stefan, assistant professor of chemistry. Stefan is researching new semiconducting polymers—plastic electronics—with adjustable energy levels. The use of semiconducting polymers in solar cells is considered a promising avenue of research aimed at making solar cells less expensive and more efficient. Elkassih’s weekly schedule includes 12 hours of lab work and meetings with Stefan and fellow students in a sort of round table where they present their work. It can be intimidating, Elkassih said, but it increases her awareness of her peers’ work and, by requiring her to explain her ideas, helps her think more deeply about her own research.

“Dr. Stefan really cares about her students and spends as much time with us as she can, making sure we work on publishing papers and helping us find fellowships,” Elkassih said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

Stefan expects her undergraduates to publish at least once before graduation and to have several published papers by the time they finish. Elkassih recently met that expectation by publishing a paper in the Polymer of Science Journal on a complex aspect of solar cell polymers.

“I want to help create a new generation of scientists who are able to think across disciplines—the scientists of the future,” Stefan said. “I think the most important thing is that I never compromise teaching for research—they both have to go hand in hand.”

The Next Generation

At the graduate level, UT Dallas attracts students from around the world on the strength of faculty and, as in undergraduate programs, access to laboratories and mentorships. Although many plan for careers in industry and with private companies, others will ultimately pursue careers in academia and will bring new students into the research endeavor.

One of these doctoral students, Prakash Sista, came 8,800 miles from his home in Mumbai, India, to work in the field of polymer chemistry. During his three years at UT Dallas, he has learned how to make organic polymers and investigate how electric charges move inside them.

In 2011, Sista was asked to present a poster detailing his research at the Excellence in Graduate Polymer Research Symposium organized by the division of Polymer Chemistry at the 241st National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society. Only a handful of students are invited to present posters in this symposium.

Among the perks of attending the conference, Sista said, was the opportunity to meet with his peers at dozens of other academic institutions. “I shared the work we are doing right here
at UT Dallas,” Sista said. “Meeting so many other scientists and sharing ideas and research was a wonderful opportunity. Who knows? Maybe someday we will get to work together. I definitely plan to teach and research in an academic center.”

Beyond peer collaborations, UT Dallas students also follow the lead of their mentors and share their love for the sciences with pre-collegiate students.

Angeline Burrell

Angeline Burrell, a doctoral candidate in the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences, makes time each year to inspire younger students through her portrayal of a comic book character developed to explain UTD’s research in space sciences. It’s a lighter complement to her high-level studies in atmospheric modeling and ionosphere physics, and it serves to increase awareness of research efforts at the University.

Working in conjunction with NASA, Dr. Mary Urquhart, director of the Department of Science/Mathematics Education, and Dr. Marc Hairston, a research scientist at the University, designed two graphic novels featuring the character “CINDI.” Burrell’s role is to dress up as CINDI and appear at public events to talk to young students about the University’s research in a way they can understand.

“I think it’s important to encourage young people, especially girls who tend to be underrepresented in the field, to pursue science,” Burrell said. “We try to find many ways to reach out to the community and hopefully garner lots of interest in our research.”

Another way faculty assist pre-collegiate students is through the UTeach Dallas program housed in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The UTeach program aims to educate the next generation of highly qualified science and math teachers in an effort to provide excellent teachers to primary and secondary schools. UTeach students major in the discipline they intend to teach, and learn pedagogy experientially, through early exposure to professional teachers and work in classrooms with young students.

“Through professional development, we are fostering relationships among students in the UTeach program,” Urquhart said. “They will go on to establish best practices in their own classrooms and districts and share the information with others. It’s a unique way to disseminate best practices among teachers—who will then go on to inspire younger students to embrace research.”

Discovery and Impact  

Research efforts are alive in every corner of the University from brain sciences and engineering to the humanities, business, and emerging media. Increasing enrollment and successful recruitment of research-active faculty (30 in the last year) also point to the growth and wisdom of prioritizing excellence in research.

“The lifeblood of a great research university is the innovative work done by faculty members, researchers and graduate students from many disciplines across the campus,” Gnade said. “We are all working toward enhancing and expanding the research environment beyond the UT Dallas campus.”

UT Dallas faculty routinely collaborate with major organizations worldwide, such as the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and establish research partnerships with NASA and major global companies.

This outreach and contribution to research communities worldwide builds relationships that enrich and strengthen the experiences offered to students and faculty at UT Dallas. Undergraduates moving on to other institutions often find they are received more readily because of the University’s reputation as a cultivator of young talent.

Dr. Sheila Amin Gutiérrez de Piñeres, professor and dean of undergraduate education, said the kind of undergraduate research opportunities offered at the University can be a defining experience in a student’s academic career.

“It allows them the opportunity to explore new ideas and concepts while learning how to test them,” she said. “We have students who after participating in undergraduate research decide to pursue advanced degrees in a discipline. Undergraduate research at UT Dallas provides opportunities that only graduate students have at many other universities.”

Many of these promising undergraduate researchers also are rewarded with fellowships and nationally and internationally competitive scholarships. The Green Fellowship program for undergrads nearly doubled last year to 17 students who dedicated a full semester to doing individual research in labs at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

And since 2005, five UT Dallas students have received nationally competitive Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships. Designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering, the Goldwater is the premier undergraduate honor of its type. It’s also a good harbinger of future success: More than 75 recent Goldwater scholars have gone on to win Rhodes Scholarships for postgraduate study.

Austin Swafford, a 2010 UT Dallas graduate and McDermott Scholar, was a recipient of a 2008 Goldwater Scholarship. Swafford leveraged his research experience at UT Dallas and is now continuing his studies at Cambridge University as a member of the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program where he is developing highly sensitive diagnostic procedures and therapeutic strategies to fight diabetes.

Dr. Walter Voit

Dr. Walter Voit, another UT Dallas grad, completed his graduate work at Georgia Tech and was recruited back to the University as an assistant professor in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science.

“I began research starting my junior year in Dr. Hal Sudborough’s lab. I did work, attended his weekly lab meetings and felt at home in that research environment,” Voit said. “It was a lot of work and involved lots of problem solving, and it really prepared me for graduate school.

“All of my experiences in the lab—delegating responsibilities, building protocols and writing—have helped me create a sustainable environment for research,” Voit said.

Voit said the entirety of his experience, first as a student researcher, then as a graduate student, prepared him for his eventual career as a professor. Like George Jeffrey, Ray Baughman and Sudborough before him, Voit is teaching through research. Since returning to UTD, two of his own undergraduate students from Georgia Tech have begun working on their doctoral degrees in his lab. At UT Dallas, research is teaching.