Agriculture professor James Baier has a knack for turning difficult classroom material into a hands-on educational experience for his students. He was the first member of his family to pursue higher education, receiving his master’s in irrigation and his Ph.D. in agricultural and biosystems engineering.
DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO TEACH?
Not exactly. I started out with a love for research. When I began my Ph.D. studies, I focused on how different treatments could accelerate methane production in landfills. Energy companies wanted to harness the gas to
generate electricity. It was extremely messy work; we had to basically create a landfill on-campus to study.
WHAT LESSONS FROM YOUR PROFESSORS HELP YOU IN THE CLASSROOM?
One of the professors who convinced me to go to grad school was Richard Warner. His teaching style was
unconventional. He didn’t just walk up to the board, write some facts down and lecture. He wanted his students to
take what they knew and apply it to situations – to see if we could attack real-world problems. I try to take that
same tack with my upper-division students.
WHAT’S YOUR MOST MEMORABLE CLASSROOM MOMENT?
Time. Most of my classes have labs associated with them, and I teach those labs. Each one takes a couple
of hours and all that teaching adds up. That said, I enjoy the labs because that’s where I can see students take what they’ve learned and apply it. We’re working on a graduate program right now – and it will definitely help to have grad students’ assistance with teaching lab.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Chris Hodge, ’95 chemistry, was working as a process engineer for Milliken & Co.’s Finishing Plant in Pendleton, South Carolina. He remembers gathering around a television with colleagues to watch news coverage of the terrorist attacks.
At the time, Hodge was weighing a job offer to leave Pendleton and conduct research for the U.S. Navy.
“I knew in that moment I had to take the opportunity to put my skills to use serving my country,” Hodge said. “I had been back-and-forth on leaving before that. What I saw on TV that day sealed the deal for me.”
His decision brought him to the chemical, biological and radiological defense lab of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia. The lab is located on the Potomac River, just an hour and a half south of Washington, D.C.
The military has a number of reasons for conducting research into decontamination technologies, but a major one is cost. The Navy’s equipment is expensive – to put it lightly. An average destroyer-class ship costs about $1.8 billion. To protect these assets from a chemical or biological attack, Hodge’s team researches ways to neutralize harmful agents without damaging property.
In 2015, a decontamination project Hodge worked on for more than a decade was finished and sold to First Line Technology, a private Virginia company. To visualize the final product, Dahlgren Decon, Hodge says to imagine the solid concentrate form of a dishwasher detergent tablet.
“Those little tablets were kind of our design dream,” said Hodge. “Among other performance specifications, the Navy had two practical requirements: it had to be easy to store in small spaces and it had to be able to remain in storage for many years.”
In the event of a chemical spill, biological attack or radiological accident, mixing Dahlgren Decon with water creates a solution that can be sprayed onto an affected surface immediately. In 15 minutes or less, the contaminants are neutralized and dissolve into a harmless soapy mix.
“People have been trying to develop a product with the Navy’s requirements for 50-60 years,” said Hodge. “We were just the first to do so successfully.”
Developing this breakthrough formula was no easy task. Though the team Hodge worked with began research in 1999, it wasn’t until 2005 that they were able to create a prototype that could combat the chemical, biological and radiological agents that the military might encounter. The last decade has been spent improving the price, speed and efficiency of the product.
“Research is a tough career if you’re afraid of failure,” said Hodge. “My team and I might work on 100 things and only 10 even get close to success. With Dahlgren Decon, it seemed like every year we had a breakthrough that moved the project forward and kept us going.”
Still, since Hodge joined the Dahlgren lab, he and his colleagues have filed for more than 200 patents, many of which have seen use in the private commerce and industry sectors. According to him, even Dahlgren Decon has alternative uses that could bring it into homes across the country.
“The ingredients that make it so powerful against harmful biological agents also make it powerful against fungi like mildew and mold,” said Hodge. “Since what we’ve developed won’t damage property, imagine the effectiveness of our solution on a home overtaken with mold damage.”
Hodge speaks fondly of his time as a Tennessee Tech student, crediting his education for giving him the tools for future success. His sophomore year, he was part of a co-op program where he spent a year producing the colorant used in Crayola markers.
“Thinking back, that co-op opportunity was the best way to transition into my industry,” said Hodge. “I was basically an understudy for a process engineer. When I left, my human resources manager told me anytime I wanted a job at Milliken & Co. I just had to give them a call.”
His junior year, when financial difficulties put his college education in jeopardy, he received a Blankenship scholarship from the chemistry department that made it possible to finish.
“I didn’t feel like a student at Tech,” said Hodge. “Professors were quick to look out for me and take me under their wing. I got to know my research advisor, Ed Lisic, and his family really well – we took several trips to present research together.”
Lisic, now director of the Undergraduate Research Program at Tech, was an assistant professor at the time, but he remembers the effect Hodge had on his career.
“Chris was the student that convinced me undergraduate research was something I wanted to pursue,” said Lisic. “He was a joker, a hard-worker and one of the most memorable students I’ve ever had.”
This year, Hodge was one of three Dahlgren researchers to receive a Technology to Warfighter Award. The annual honor is given by the naval base for “direct and significant impact on the warfighter by developing needed capability and transitioning it into operations.”
“That’s one of the reasons I took this job in the first place,” said Hodge. “So to be recognized for fielding a viable product our men and women in uniform can use to keep themselves safe – that means a lot to me.”
Dahlgren Decon Facts
• Has a five- to 10-year shelf life in storage
• Works with any water source – fresh water, salt water, brackish water – and is good for up to six hours after mixing
• Capable of neutralizing Mustard gas (HD) in less than two minutes, Soman nerve agent (GD) in five minutes, VX nerve agent, Anthrax, and Ebola in 15 minutes
Tennessee Tech is taking its research responsibilities to new heights. From increases in sponsored research to a record number of intellectual property disclosures, Tech’s Office of Research and Economic Development is seeing a revitalized research effort across the university.
“We support, inspire, incentivize and help develop faculty to pursue sponsored research,” said Bharat Soni, vice president for research and economic development. “By November of 2016, we had already surpassed the total amount of sponsored research from the previous year.”
The total for the previous fiscal year (July 1, 2015—June 30, 2016) was $11.2 million. By November 2016, Tech’s sponsored research stood at $11.8 million. Soni’s office has also seen significant growth in research proposal submissions.
Along with sponsored research, the university supports innovation and entrepreneurship.
“So far this year, we have had a record 11 intellectual property disclosures, with two more to be filed soon.”
Soni says that an objective of his office is to spin off two companies based on Tech’s intellectual property by the end of 2017-2018, as well as license two additional intellectual properties.
Solving the mysteries of physics to help explain the origin, evolution and fate of the universe may sound intimidating, but for Adam Holley, an assistant professor of physics at Tennessee Tech, it’s an exciting adventure and an engaging research opportunity for his students.
Thanks to a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, Holley and his students are looking at the life of neutrons, which play an important role in the study of our universe’s origin.
“This is fundamental physics,” Holley said. “Once we understand nature at a fundamental level, we can understand how other things work.”
Holley and his students are busting neutrons from the nuclei of atoms and looking at the decay of those neutrons. Currently, there are two methods used for measuring the average lifetime of a neutron from the time it leaves the nucleus, but the results of those methods vary by eight seconds.
“Which is huge,” Holley said. “We will be working on ways to enhance this measurement to get it to a tenth of a second.”
The CAREER Award is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award and includes federal grant funds to support research and education around an award-winning proposal.
What makes Holley’s proposal especially exciting for Tennessee Tech is his plan to include undergraduate students in his research team.
“This will enhance our ability at this university to involve undergraduates in cutting-edge research,” Holley said. “Giving undergraduates the opportunity to be involved in research early is important.”
Holley is building a core group, spanning freshmen to seniors, who are working on the grant components collaboratively.
“This group will communicate with other research groups in the department and the across the university,” he said. “There will be a hum of research across campus.”
The award was a bit of a surprise for Holley, who knew the grant was prestigious and tough to get.
“This allows me to contribute to Tech,” Holley said.
And this specific contribution is one that university physics chairman Stephen Robinson says is not only important for the study of physics as a whole but also for the future of Tennessee Tech’s physics program.
“For the department and the university it provides more research opportunities, and so makes us more attractive to prospective students,” Robinson said. “It also helps to raise our profile as a research department and university.”
The research involves a set of ideas and skills that fit well into the undergraduate program framework, and this initiative will be used to inspire future undergraduate research, training, mentoring and outreach at Tech.
In Steven Anton’s vision of the future, knee implants will not only help patients walk better, the implants will be able to tell physicians how well they are working. He has received a $417,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to support this research.
Anton, working with noted orthopedic surgeon R. Michael Meneghini of Indianapolis, is researching the use of piezoelectric materials embedded in artificial joints in order to sense knee forces and to ultimately increase the success of joint replacement surgeries and extend the life of the joint in order to reduce future surgeries.
“By embedding piezos into the implants,” Anton said, “not only can the joints sense stresses being put on the joint during surgery, they can harvest electricity from the joint’s motion and continue to power the sensors for measurement of forces for the life of the implant. Ten to 20 years ago, this was not feasible; now it is.”
Anton explains that one post-operative benefit is that the sensors would help with physical therapy by making it data driven.
“Your therapist can see what forces are affecting the joint,” Anton said, instead of relying on the patient’s description of how the action feels.
A long-term benefit would be to correlate surgical procedures and materials to successful patient outcomes in order to determine the ideal surgical procedures and implant design.
“Hip and knee replacements are becoming more common,” Anton said. “Younger people are getting them replaced. Currently, the life expectancy of a knee or hip joint is 10 years. The ultimate question is can we improve the life of an implant and the patient’s satisfaction.”
According to Anton, more than 100,000 patients are not satisfied with their quality of life after receiving an implant, which accounts for up to 20 percent of joint-replacement surgeries.
The first stage of the research is confirming what happens when the piezos are installed on the implants, obtaining much-needed data to prove feasibility. From there, the process calls for partnering with joint manufacturers and returning to the NIH for clinical studies.
“We’ve been working on this for three years,” Anton said. “It’s a very continual process, but we have a path to get there.”
Anton’s interest in engineering came from following in the footsteps of his father, who started on the assembly line at General Motors and worked for the automotive giant while earning his degree in industrial engineering.
“What sealed the deal for me was my aptitude in math and science,” said Anton, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “It came naturally. Engineering was a good fit. I was always hands-on, and engineering was a practical field.”
From his start, Anton has built a research agenda in smart materials that has led to his current work to help improve the quality of life of people with artificial joints.
Anton’s work with piezos has led to two distinctions: being the recipient of a Young Investigator Award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and authoring an article that has been cited more than 1,500 times.
The Air Force award was his first successful grant proposal, and involves developing real-time structural health monitoring systems for systems operating in highly dynamic environments – such as high-velocity impacts, explosions or shocks –in order to identify changes to the structures on a microsecond to millisecond timescale.
Anton directs Tech’s Dynamic and Smart Systems Laboratory. He joined the mechanical engineering faculty in 2013. Prior to joining Tech, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Ambareen Siraj has her sights set on the future. And that future is computer science, specifically cybersecurity.
Siraj, an associate professor of computer science at Tennessee Tech, teaches security courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level. She has focused her research on the vast areas surrounding cybersecurity, including situation assessment in network security, secure communication in smart grids and security education.
“Our life is integrated with computing. It’s in our phone. It’s at home. It’s in everything we do,” Siraj said. “Computing is everywhere. This software has to have people to write it and secure it. Cybersecurity is the job now and in the future.”
Siraj has authored or co-authored approximately 30 journal and conference articles while taking an active part in promoting cybersecurity training throughout the nation.
As the director of Tech’s Cybersecurity Education, Research and Outreach Center, she is the leader on four National Science Foundation grants involving cybersecurity and is the founder of the national Women in Cybersecurity conference, an effort to recruit, retain and advance women in the cybersecurity industry.
Siraj hosted the first-ever CyberCorps SFS Bootcamp on Tech’s campus in August. The two-day bootcamp mentored approximately 40 aspiring cybersecurity students from around the nation by providing information and insight from guest speakers from Homeland Security, Dynetics, and MITRE Corporation, as well as faculty and staff from Tennessee Tech. Around the same time, she also conducted on campus Cybersecurity camps for high school students and teachers in Tennessee, as part of NSA GenCyber program.
In between the various camps, Siraj ventured to the White House complex in Washington, D.C., on two occasions to help promote computer science and cybersecurity. She met with other educators and members of President Barack Obama’s administration in discussing the “Computer Science for All” initiative that is aimed at coordinating efforts to boost K-12 computer science education and increasing the pipeline of national and cybersecurity workers for the United States.
“Computer science is not even considered a high school elective course in most states,” Siraj said. “We want to get computer science not just in the high schools, but in middle schools as well across the country.”
Siraj’s effort to educate students and enhance the cybersecurity field of study goes beyond classes, research projects, workshops and conferences.
Last year, Tech’s center became the home of the Tennessee CyberCorps, a scholarship program funded by a more than $4 million NSF grant. The CyberCorps program at Tennessee Tech is the only such program in the state and one of only 63 across the country.
“She has a lot of passion for what she does. What she is doing is very exciting, and it has been a source of pride for the department,” said Jerry Gannod, chairman of the computer science department. “She mentors students and runs the outreach program. There are so many moving parts and she’s been able to manage them all. The center is in very good hands with her.”
There is an energy coming from recent efforts to enhance something that has been a part of Tech from the beginning: we are a university of makers. The College of Business is the home of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship program, which exists to empower students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community to create a brighter future for themselves. Here is a rapid rundown of some of Tech’s I&E efforts.
Eagle Works is a process and competition to showcase students’ innovative business ideas. Students form teams focused around a business idea, develop their idea and pitch it to a panel of judges.
Academic Programs include an Innovation & Entrepreneurship Certificate (available to all majors), the National Science Foundation I-Corps, Experiential Learning in Entrepreneurship, and a Governor’s School for Innovation & Entrepreneurship for rising high school seniors.
The University Innovation Fellows are a global coalition of university students dedicated to spreading I&E on college campuses. Tech is home to 10 of the 600 University Innovation Fellows. Each member of this elite group completes specialized training and implements campus-wide events to create a I&E culture at Tech.
The iMakerSpace, developed by the College of Engineering and the College of Business, provides an interactive and collaborative space for students and faculty to use in pursuit of I&E projects. The space provides a wide variety of resources and technologies that can be used in fabricating prototypes.
Tech student starts culture of innovation with help of faculty team
By Kory Riemensperger
Three years ago, chemical engineering professor Holly Stretz asked her freshman class for volunteers to promote innovation and entrepreneurship on-campus.
For Enis Cirak, ‘16 chemical engineering, the call to action would be the beginning of an entrepreneurial lifestyle. As the first University Innovation Fellow, he traveled to California to study with with representatives from Google, Stanford University and Citrix.
“The environment in Silicon Valley was incredible,” said Cirak. “The average student I met was full of passion and ambition, they were managing a nonprofit or starting a company, doing something to chase their dreams.
“It was a wake-up call.”
After six weeks of training, all fellows are assigned a project. On paper, Cirak’s was simple: create positive change by bringing that spirit back to campus and spreading it.
To start his project, Cirak and some friends started the Social Entrepreneurship Society, a student group that tried to mimic the adventurous culture he experienced in Silicon Valley.
“It can be tough to get students to understand what an entrepreneurial lifestyle is like,” said Cirak. “The traditional path of earning a degree is the first thing students think of. I wanted to show students another side of education.”
To promote creative thinking and an entrepreneurial lifestyle on campus, the society hosted a number of events, including TechX, an event modeled after the popular TED talks. Though it took place during a finals week, over 200 people showed up to hear from a diverse crowd of scientists and thinkers.
“There’s something about how these highly motivated kids work,” said Stretz. “An event like that would have taken faculty and administrators six months to a year to set up. The SES kids did it in a month.”
The chemical engineering professor’s interest in entrepreneurship stems from her involvement in the TTU Pathways to Innovation Program team. This group of faculty and administrators was started by Stretz; Vahid Motevalli, associate dean for Research & Innovation; Steve Canfield, mechanical engineering professor; and Mohan Rao, mechanical engineering professor.
“We were never charged with forming the team,” said Stretz. “No administrator came to us and asked us to start this. It’s been grassroots from the beginning, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to make such a large impact.”
According to Stretz, to promote innovation and entrepreneurship on campus, the team focuses on five pillars: the University Innovation Fellows program, the Eagle Works competition, the iMakerSpace, the creation of an I&E certificate and new Tech course offerings.
The iMakerSpace is located in Tech’s iCube. The iCube is a shared venture, located in the Volpe Library, between the College of Business, College of Engineering and the Office of Research and Economic Development. It was created as an opportunity for students to work on interdisciplinary projects with faculty and regional businesses.
When the space was first proposed, the SES team was invited to provide input about the layout of the space and what equipment would be necessary. Now, students rely on the space to use 3-D printers, meet with their teams and receive advice from staff with real-world experience.
I&E certificate + course offerings
At the academic level, the university has created an I&E certificate and expanding current course offerings. College certificates are a good way to obtain some expertise in a field without investing several years for a diploma.
The team is also pushing for additional classes. For example, Melissa Geist, nursing professor, and Robby Sanders, chemical engineering professor, have developed a course where nurses and engineers form teams, do rounds at Cookeville Regional Medical Center and develop a pitch for a new healthcare innovation or product.
Cirak’s latest venture as an entrepreneur was born out of a Tech competition called Eagle Works. This annual event encourages engineering and business student teams to design, develop and pitch original inventions.
After falling short of first place his junior year, Cirak resolved to gather a team of innovators he knew since his freshman year and win the competition.
“We learned a lot of lessons from our first time in the competition,” said Cirak. “The second time, we were able to focus on designing something that would truly succeed.”
Their idea was a mobile app named Gigamunch. Cirak compares the barebones of the app to Esty, a popular e-commerce website. Users who download the app can browse local cooks and order food, then either pick-up the food or use a delivery service. An approval process vets all cooks who want to list their culinary creations on the app.
The team started work on the app in December 2015 and released a version for Nashville users in June. At the time of publication, they have 30 or so cooks and anywhere from 100-500 users online at any given time.
“Seeing those first few sales alongside the diverse varieties of food our cooks offered was huge,” said Cirak. “It got the whole team motivated to keep moving forward.”
Looking back at the journey he’s taken since freshman year, Cirak recognizes the steps he’s taken have set him up to chase his calling.
“Sometimes entrepreneurship has a bad connotation,” said Cirak. “Some people look at it and see a snake oil salesman in the uncertainty.
“The real picture is that it’s a life of your own design – it’s a lifestyle where you rely on your creativity to get you through the day.”
And the professor who got him started?
“Before Enis, it was rare to find students interested in creating their own app or starting a company while they studied here,” said Stretz. “Now, it feels like there’s a growing entrepreneurial community here at Tech.”
Shortly after finals week [Spring 2016], 41 students, nine alumni, five faculty members and two spouses traveled to Ireland, Wales and England as part of Chorale Tour under the direction of professor Craig Zamer.
For some students like Dexter Lowe, a junior Vocal Music Education major, this was a once in a lifetime experience. At the final rehearsal before leaving, Lowe said, “I’m really excited, I can’t wait to see and sing in all the cathedrals and travel with my best friends. I’m a little anxious, but I’m excited to see where it takes us.”
After arriving back in the U.S., Lowe expressed her thoughts on the trip. “The trip shifted my perspective in many ways. It truly was an experience.”
“Music is so universal and it has such deep roots that go beyond our towns in the United States. Seeing that children all over the world use music to learn and develop only gave me a deeper appreciation and more motivation to chase my dreams in music.”
While on tour, the Tech Chorale sang with several other choirs including the Carrigaline Choir, Llandaff Cathedral Choral Society, Choristers of Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral and Cambridge Queen’s College Choir.
“The type of experiential learning that occurs on these kinds of trips are invaluable,” Craig Zamer said. “The opportunity to sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in the place where it was first performed, cannot be easily duplicated. It builds connections to the things they have studied and makes a greater impact. Standing at the port where the Titanic departed for the first and last time, performing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, physically seeing the Queen of England make her way to Parliament, are just few of those unique experiences.”
In Dublin, Ireland, the group was scheduled to have a master class with a member of Anúna. Much to their surprise, Michael McGlynn, the founder of Anúna and the composer of one of the chorale’s performance pieces, arrived to teach the class.
“It is one thing to study a piece of music, rehearse a piece of music and perform a piece of music,” commented Zamer. “It is a completely new experience to have the person who wrote the piece of music talk with you, work with you, and provide insight into their thoughts on musicianship, performing and their own ideas about their composition.”
DeAnna Etchison, a newly graduated music performance and music business alumna, has had the opportunity to travel twice internationally with the Tech Chorale. For Etchison the most special part of the trip was singing at the farewell dinner.
Sociology professor Ada Haynes has taught at Tech for 20 years, working to inspire a love of learning in herstudents by creating an engaging classroom experience. She helps them learn through programming with the One World organization and the sociology club.
V: Did you always want to be a teacher?
AH: No. I realized when I was a teaching assistant. To get up in front of a class and interact with students was something I really enjoyed, plus the research and service as well. Knowing I could do all three was exciting.
V: What lessons from your professors help in your classroom?
AH: They taught me the importance of getting students involved in the subject. They taught me you need to develop a sense of teaching beyond the classroom. It’s not just the hour and a half that you’re in the class; it’s all the extra things you do to get the students involved in learning. The more you can get students to engage inside and outside the classroom, the more they learn.
V: What is your most memorable classroom moment?
AH: One of the most amazing things about teaching is seeing your students be successful. Taking 26 students to the Southern Sociological Society meeting and watching them get offers for graduate school and hearing people from schools like Duke say that my students do better research than theirs is one of my more memorable moments of teaching.
V: What is the biggest challenge you face in teaching?
AH: One of the hardest things is when students think they don’t want to be in the classroom. They don’t understand that college is more than a grade; it’s an opportunity. A lot of kindergarten students start out inquisitive and creative, but lose that excitement. You have to help them find it, so they understand the joy of learning again.
V: If you could live in any time period in history or the future, what would it be?
AH: Today is very exciting; there are so many changes taking place. My students seem to be making a difference in the world. I want to be able to see what differences they have created in their lives.