Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned a B.S. in chemistry from Millsaps College in 1999. I received an M.S. in chemistry from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2002 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Houston in 2004. From 2005-2006, I worked in the department of chemical engineering at Stanford University as an Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Scholar. I am currently an associate professor of both chemistry and engineering. I am also the director of the Integrated Bioscience and Nanotechnology Cleanroom that is located in Riverbend South. I have an active research group (currently 11 Ph.D. candidates) in the field of polymer coatings and thin films and currently teach courses in both chemistry (including the dreaded Organic Chemistry II) and engineering for the biochemical engineering program.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I started my career as an assistant professor at UGA in 2007. I am originally from the Southeastern United States (Talladega, Ala., to be exact) and my wife and I always wanted to come back to the South. The deciding factor for me was that UGA provided me the opportunity to do applied science and technology with appointments in the College of Engineering and in the chemistry department in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. Also, Dale Threadgill and Brahm Verma were really instrumental in my decision, both because of their genuine personalities and our likeminded vision for the College of Engineering. Also, at UGA, it has been very easy to collaborate with people in different disciplines on different research projects, which is what makes this career fun for me.
What are your favorite courses and why?
Well, in a way, I live a double life. In the spring semesters, I teach Organic Chemistry II. This is one of the more challenging courses for pre-professional students in their curriculum, and the class size averages approximately 350 students. This class is high intensity, and I really enjoy lecturing to this class size. On one hand, I get to interact with some of the best students in the university. On the other, many students struggle mightily with this course, which makes for not-so-pleasant encounters. In the fall semesters, I teach smaller sections of either Equilibrium Thermodynamics or Soft Materials. These classes are very enjoyable because of the more personal interactions that I can have with the students. I would have to say that Soft Materials is my favorite overall. This is an upper-level undergraduate/graduate course in both chemistry and engineering about the properties of polymers. The diversity of thought from the students makes this course enjoyable, since students from different colleges and departments such as pharmacy, food science, engineering, chemistry and physics are usually enrolled.
What interests you about your field?
The field of polymer coatings and surface chemistry interests me because it is so practical. For example, we currently have projects in my group involving organic photovoltaics (which convert light to energy), antimicrobial coatings, new biosensors, self-sorting surfaces, biodegradable polymers, and stimuli responsive hydrogels and adhesives. Each one of these projects is grounded in fundamental science but, if successful, will have an immediate industrial and commercial impact. This is exciting for both the graduate students who are working on the projects and myself and helps keep one motivated.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
I was awarded the inaugural Central Intelligence Agency Young Investigator award in 2007. I also received the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award in 2010, its most prestigious award for early-career faculty.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
My research inspires my teaching by giving the opportunity to show students how the fundamental relationships that they are learning in class are directly used in cutting-edge research projects. Teaching inspires my research by constantly reminding me about the importance of patience.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I sincerely hope that my students gain an appreciation for the fundamentals. The courses that I teach are some of the cornerstones of modern science and engineering, and I firmly believe that a strong foundation is absolutely necessary for new scientific and technological discoveries.
Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student is one that is disciplined but also has an inquisitive mind.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
I enjoy being around my grad students and colleagues in our research laboratories in Riverbend South, but I also enjoy running around campus for a little exercise. I enjoy the scenery and struggle with the hills.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
Do a little vegetable gardening and build things. I am getting better at woodworking.
Two books that I have enjoyed recently are “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand and “The Alchemy of Air” by Thomas Hager. “Unbroken” is an absolutely heroic story of survival that tells the story of Louie Zamperini, who went through three years of the most unbelievable torture that I can imagine. He was shot down over the Pacific in WWII and lost at sea for weeks on a small raft only to be “rescued” by the Japanese and put in a concentration camp. His refusal to break is something that we all can learn from. “The Alchemy of Air” is a historical account of the race to make ammonia out of air, which is one of the most important inventions in the history of the world, because this is how we make synthetic fertilizer. The scientists involved, particularly Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, are compelling, contradictory and tragic. This true account shows how the power of science can work for both good and evil.
Proudest moment at UGA?
Instead of a singular moment, it would have to be the graduation of my eight Ph.D. students over the past three years. They have all made me very proud as I have watched them grow both as scientists and as individuals during our time together.