Brenda Prager Practices What She Teaches

New assistant professor of chemical engineering excels, inspires others to do so

Brenda Prager

Brenda Prager

Brenda Prager is many things, but an underachiever is not among them.

A three-time honors graduate of the University of Melbourne in Australia, she previously held positions as a research scientist at Kodak Australia, a research fellow at the Australian Pulp and Paper Industry and in the chemical engineering department of Monash University. Prager also was a senior process development engineer at Universal Biosensors and a secondary school teacher in Australia’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

Last fall, the assistant professor of chemical engineering joined the faculty of the University of Mississippi, where she has continued to build upon her solid record of teaching, research and service.

“We are very glad she decided to come to Ole Miss from the ‘land Down Under,'” said John O’Haver, UM chair and professor of chemical engineering. “She is a great team player, actively developing collaborations both within and outside the department. Her work on paper coatings brings a new industrially-focused research area to the department.”

Prager’s experience, commitment to the classroom, effective pedagogy and understanding of educational research all enhance her performance in the classroom, O’Haver said. “Her research on differentiated instruction could revolutionize first-year courses in engineering, helping to significantly improve retention of students to STEM.”

When Prager first taught a subject in the master’s program in pulp and paper engineering at Monash, she was mindful that she didn’t actually “know” how to teach and didn’t understand how students learned.

Therefore, in due time, Prager left engineering to work on a master’s in teaching, while at the same time spending five years with the Victorian Education Department in Australia as a secondary school teacher specializing in chemistry, physics and mathematics for grades 7-12. This experience was invaluable in learning and honing her teaching skills.

“When I felt ready to return to academia, I wanted the chance to experience life in another country, gaining an appreciation of how other cultures conduct their research and teaching,” Prager said. “I have been to the USA several times and therefore set about looking for a position over here.

“I looked only in the Southern states due to the climate, and saw the job opening at Ole Miss. The requirements seemed to match my skills, and I was impressed by Ole Miss as a university, so therefore accepted the position willingly.”

Prager has taught “Separation Processes” and “Chemical Process Principles I.” This fall, she will be teaching the freshman “Introduction to Chemical Engineering” class.

Her research interests mainly involve surface and interfacial characterizations of pigmented coatings on porous substrates, and modifications of surfaces using supercritical techniques.

“As a research fellow at Monash, I investigated rates of coating consolidation onto paper substrates when coated at high speed,” she said. “I identified the first and second critical concentrations during consolidation, found to be far more rapid under realistic conditions than had previously been thought.”

Members of Prager’s coating team also identified ultrasonic vibrational frequencies that were a function of the coating roll covering and not of high speeds. The detection of these frequencies coincided with the onset of common defects observed in surface coating, such as misting and spitting.

“I am presently building up my research group again here at Ole Miss,” Prager said. “My small team is comprised of two graduate students and two undergraduate students. We are investigating a variety of novel coatings onto paper substrates, with the view to developing innovative packaging for food-related goods.”

One project is continuing Prager’s earlier work with supercritical impregnation of AKD, as well as other environmentally friendly hydrophobic agents, to create a superhydrophobic surface onto paper. The team is also investigating solubility properties of these agents in supercritical carbon dioxide with the help of Wei-Yin Chen, a UM professor of chemical engineering.

“Another project is aimed at developing thermally resistant coatings using nanoparticles and other unique materials introduced into the coating,” she said. “A third project has investigated superhydrophobicity by allowing silane monomers to polymerize in-situ on the paper substrate, and has monitored the rate of hydrophobic development.”

She is developing grant proposals for future projects, including the development of an antimicrobial coating using nanoparticles, and investigating the fate of nanoparticle migration from sources such as novel packaging, either into the environment or alternatively into food.

“Not a lot is known about the safety aspects of nanoparticles if released to the environment,” Prager said. “So investigating the mechanisms of nanoparticle migration will assist in better understanding what processes are taking place.”

Prager said that her most exciting research achievement was gaining her first patent while working at Kodak Australia.

“It is very meaningful to me because it incorporated a number of ‘firsts’: my first patent, my first engineering job after graduating with my Ph.D., and my first team where I was highly influential in the direction of the research to be undertaken,” she said.

Her short-term goals include continuing to grow into her job, building her research team, understanding the day-to-day operation of the department, maintaining her annual teaching/research/ service targets to stay on track for tenure and creating outreach opportunities for girls in engineering by visiting local schools and spending time with future cohorts.

Prager’s long-term goals are to build up her scientific research and publish results, to expand collaborations with other Ole Miss faculty and beyond, and to submit successful grants to fund continued research efforts.

“Ultimately, I plan to develop innovative coatings for food packaging and develop strong collaborations with paperboard industries to progress this work through to full production,” she said. “As for teaching, I want to implement differentiation techniques into my classes as well as assist other faculty in implementing these techniques into theirs and to continue to refine and learn new teaching methods for the betterment of my students.”

With regards to service, Prager wants to establish ongoing outreach to attract high school students into STEM careers at the university and to become involved with freshmen education more generally.

Prager’s husband, Michael, has fully supported her in this major move and career progression. A retired director of nursing from a large hospital and a clinical nurse specialist, he has participated in extensive voluntary work both in England and Australia.

He also was a justice of the peace and bail justice in Australia and a magistrate in England. He has had experience running large community-based organizations as chairman.

Prager’s leisure activities include playing the piano, photography and travel.

“I am on the roster for the 9 a.m. service at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church,” she said. “I enjoy playing classical music – especially Mozart and Handel – as well as blues and ragtime music.”

Prager and her husband also enjoy traveling the state to see and photograph various sights. “Our next trip planned is to see part of Natchez Trace from Tupelo to Nashville,” she said.

Prager said that she is confident that, with lots of hard work and persistence, she will eventually achieve all the goals she has set for herself at UM.

“I think it is important to seek out tenured faculty and other staff who are willing to act as a mentor and help me navigate through all the intricacies of being an academic,” she said. “I am fortunate to have found some wonderful people who are supporting me in this process.”