Students Fete Faculty Research Mentors Benz, Jacobitz

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Students Fete Faculty Research Mentors Benz, Jacobitz

The best faculty award possible is one in which your own students tell you about the impact you’ve made on them.That was the cherished way in which Chemistry Professor Lauren Benz and Mechanical Engineering Professor Frank Jacobitz were celebrated Dec. 10 as the newest recipients of the University of San Diego's Outstanding Faculty Research Mentor Award, presented by the Office of Undergraduate Research.

“Traditionally, the award has been open to faculty and students to nominate, but this is the first time we’ve kept it just to the students,” said Office of Undergraduate Research Director Sonia Zarate. “We felt it is the students who really know how faculty mentor and how deserving they are.”

Jacobitz was feted by Will Dow, a senior electrical engineering major who first met his mentor during his first-year preceptorial class, Honors Engineering 101, in the fall of 2011.

Dow recalled that Jacobitz assigned him and other freshman students to began a three-semester research project tied to creativity in engineering education. This group prepared a lecture that would be given to all freshman engineering classes in Spring 2012.

Jacobitz led the evaluation of the results en route to having a conference publication in 2013 called “Free Your Mind — Unlocking You Inner Creativity.”

This experience, Dow said, “provided my classmates and I with a thorough introduction to university-level research, including internal review board standards, statistical analysis and publication writing. These skills have helped me every year since and now more than ever in the midst of my senior project.”

The connection between Jacobitz and Dow flourished. One office visit to Jacobitz provided Dow with his own unique research experience tied to the former’s work on the simulation of blood flow in microvessel networks. Dow’s project goal was about simulating blood flow in the microvessels of the human Conjunctiva. So far, the results, Dow said, contrast the characteristics of diabetic and healthy networks. Through this experience, Dow has displayed two posters, has given an oral presentation at three different conferences and has received two USD Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) grants.

“Over the past three years, Dr. Jacobitz has been more than generous in mentoring and sharing knowledge with undergraduate students,” Dow said. “Our conversations have extended beyond the discussion of specifics with our research projects to include advice about college, graduate school and professional work. I will be applying to graduate school in engineering in the coming months with a great head start thanks to his help.”

Benz, who arrived at USD in 2009 as Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor in Chemistry and is a 2013 recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, has made an impact on several students. Her range of mentorship was evident as two students, freshman Emilio Grijalva, and senior biochemistry major Bette Webster, expressed their thanks for Benz’s mentorship.

Grijalva came to USD this year and was able to work with Benz through USD’s Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) program. A PURE student is paired with a faculty member the summer before his or her first semester at USD. His project focused on finding ways to use nanoporous materials in environments to slow the process of global warming.

Webster said she’s been blessed to have Benz in her corner both for research purposes and a steady influence regarding graduate school opportunities and as a support system. Benz has been with Webster at every step, even maintaining contact with while Webster did a study abroad trip in New Zealand last summer. But, perhaps, the biggest asset was Benz’s insistence that Webster apply for the Beckman Scholars program.

The university last February was awarded $130,000 by the Irvine, Calif.-based Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to fund five Beckman Scholar Awards made payable over a three-year term. The award supports each recipient’s research efforts for a full academic year, meaning Webster has spent productive time working on her research during this fall semester and will again in the spring.

Webster’s research in Benz’s lab focuses on solid-state gas storage, which allows a large amount of gas to be stored in a small volume. These gases can be used as alternative fuel sources and/or converted into other molecules. Webster’s work has been focused specifically on “studying the potential for a surface called ZIF-8, a porous structure, to be used for such gas storage and molecular conversions.”

Given the research work that students have done under the direction and support of Benz and Jacobitz, the faculty winners said their experience has been very rewarding.

“The real gift is just being and learning with the students. They’re all so talented,” Benz said. “It’s so fun to watch them go from timid students working in the lab, maybe afraid to turn a knob, trying to give my advice about that to toward the end of their careers here, they’re running the show. … They are fantastic at what they do. It’s awesome to work with them every day.”

Jacobitz, who arrived at USD in 2003, feels the award is twofold: “The award recognizes my part of this endeavor, which relies on having faculty-to-student action, but the students are just as important in accomplishing the work. It’s meaningful to me that my work gets recognized, but it also reflects on the quality and dedication of the students.”

— Ryan T. Blystone