From 14 to 64, UM Freshman Class Spans the Ages

Gifted teen, veteran highlight wide range of educational opportunities


Ryan Mays (center), is taking classes at the University of Mississippi this fall as a 14-year-old freshman, one of the youngest in the university’s history. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

XFORD, Miss. – One grew up in the age of “flower power” and the Vietnam War, while the other was born after the launch of Apple iTunes, but both are part of the University of Mississippi’s 2018 freshman class. 

A 64-year-old grandfather and military veteran who takes all his classes online from his home in southwest Mississippi, and a 14-year old wunderkind who aspires to be a surgeon make up the extreme outliers in the incoming class that spans 50 years in age.

Ryan Mays was home-schooled by his mom, a college professor with a Ph.D., before being accepted into UM. He entered as a 14-year-old, one of the youngest students in the history of the university. The 2015 freshman class had four 15-year-olds, but it’s highly unusual to find a student Mays’ age at any university.

If his life were normal, he would be beginning ninth grade, but there’s nothing typical about Mays. From an early age, his mother, Vikki Spann, knew he was far more intellectually advanced than most peers. He’d been reading since he was 3 years old. 

“It’s been very rewarding to be blessed with a son that you know has a gift,” Spann said. “You just can’t sit on that. You have to constantly seek God and ask for direction about what to do next. In that regard, only God led us to this place.” 

Mays’ Ole Miss educational journey began over the summer, when he enrolled in intensive Mandarin Chinese courses as a member of Cohort 16 in the Chinese Language Flagship Program. The Mound Bayou native has a double major in Chinese and biology with a minor in neuroscience.

One of the first signs that he would be interested in foreign languages came when he was a baby. Mays would take the family’s TV remote and change the language from English to French, Spanish or Chinese and watch it.

The bright, soft-spoken youth completed his home-school curriculum through a 12th-grade level, but has also been a student and member of the Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures at Mississippi Valley State University since 2013. There, he was exposed to Arabic, French, Chinese and Russian languages.

He also studied abroad in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Limon and San Jose, Costa Rica.

He is a member of the Tri-County Workforce Alliance Health Mentorship Program, where he has had the opportunity to shadow Dr. Gregory Norwood, an OB/GYN. Before joining the mentorship program, he interned with Dr. Timothy Lloyd, a veterinarian. He hopes to shadow a surgeon soon. 

So far, his age doesn’t come up here in class much, except when one professor uses him as an example of good study habits for others to follow, he said.

He doesn’t find himself overwhelmed with going from a class of one to large college classes. He’s trained himself to handle it. 

“I wasn’t really that nervous, since I had taken classes beforehand,” Mays said. “I just sort of ignore the sheer amount of people in the classroom and focus on maybe one person at a time in the classroom, whoever is sitting next to me, or just the teacher.”

Mays hopes to become a multilingual surgeon. His mother is an adjunct at MVSU, seeking employment in the Oxford area to eliminate their nearly three-hour daily commute to campus. 

John Smith, of the Amite County town of Gloster, graduated from high school in 1973, but several mitigating circumstances preventing him from attending college.

“I don’t think a lot of people in America think about it, but college was not an option for people who didn’t have the correct income bracket when I was growing up,” Smith said. “My dad was pretty successful considering he didn’t complete the fifth grade. It just wasn’t an option for me. 

“One of the main reasons is I just didn’t have the money to pay the tuition, much less for an apartment or any other housing. I didn’t have a scholarship.”

Instead, he embarked on a 30-year military career, that started in the U.S. Air Force, where he was active duty for eight years, and then he spent 22 years in the Mississippi Air National Guard. During his military career, he took some community college classes.

He retired as a senior master sergeant in 2007 and went to work for a defense contractor based in Atlanta for nine years. Smith spent the bulk of his time on the road. 

When he decided to leave that job, it was time to work on a goal that had been on the back burner for many years: finishing college. 

He decided to pursue a degree through Ole Miss Online, which offered him flexibility, convenience and access to the university’s faculty from the comfort of his home, 265 miles from Oxford.

He had taken about 30 hours of coursework at community college that he transferred to UM. He’s taking a law class, Writing 102, Religion 101 and Philosophy 101 this semester. He’s aiming for a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion

He motivates himself to stay on top of his classwork. 

“It is not that hard to stay disciplined,” Smith said. “You have a goal of staying in there and making sure you follow up and stick with it.”

For him, college is about finishing something. He said he doesn’t intend to pursue another career. 

He and his wife of 44 years, Linda Smith, have five young grandchildren, and he wants them to be there when he walks across the stage at his graduation. This will hopefully show them the importance of education at an early age, he said. 

“I’m looking forward to earning a degree that says, ‘Ole Miss’ on it,” Smith said. “That is my No. 1 goal.”

Mays and Smith are a reminder of how many different kinds of people make up the Ole Miss community, said Brandi Hephner LaBanc, UM vice chancellor for student affairs

“Ryan and John’s journeys to Ole Miss remind us of the diversity and complexity of those students we educate and serve,” Hephner LaBanc said. “The wonderful privilege of working on our campus – physically or virtually – is the opportunity to engage with and observe students of all backgrounds and skills find their niche and excel.”

Taylor Named Director of UM Health Professions Advising Office

Administrator helps students achieve career goals

Sovent Taylor

OXFORD, Miss. – Sovent Taylor has been named director of the University of Mississippi Health Professions Advising Office.

The Health Professions Advising Office, located on the third floor of the Martindale Student Services Center, aims to provide information to students pursuing careers as health professionals.

In his new role as director, Taylor said he will focus on the needs of UM students as they begin their path toward a career in a health profession.

“Our students can come to us at any time,” Taylor said. “Everyone in this office is passionate about helping students.

“I want to raise awareness and work with our faculty and staff on campus so they can understand more about what we do to help students achieve their dreams of becoming health professionals.”

Taylor is no stranger to the university, having earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and marketing from UM in 2003, a master’s degree in higher education in 2006 and his doctorate in higher education in May.

He serves on the University Standing Committee for Intercollegiate Athletics and the UG Application Selection Committee for Regional Scholarship Applications. He is national vice president for the Alpha Epsilon Delta health preprofessional honor society.

Taylor’s appointment is beneficial to the students and the university, said Lee Cohen, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

“Our office is delighted to have Dr. Taylor in this important role,” Cohen said. “He is our first full-time professional staff director in HPAO, which means that he will be able to spend more time devoted to the activities and leadership necessary in this office as we move forward.

“Dr. Taylor brings years of experience working in different capacities on campus, and his knowledge and connections with various health professional schools in Mississippi and beyond is a great benefit to our students.”

Interested Ole Miss students can find out more about the services offered at the Health Professions Advising Office by visiting

University Launches ConnectU HR Portal

Platform offers robust functions for applicant searches, performance reviews, more

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi’s Department of Human Resources has launched ConnectU, a new web portal that offers more tools for supervisors to provide feedback for employees and more resources to help employees develop in their careers, among other features. 

ConnectU, which is an SAP Successfactors program, has a performance and engagement module that will be launched Oct. 1, and it also will be used for staff performance reviews. The platform is being used by job search committees during the applicant screening process.

HR is conducting training sessions for supervisors who will use the new web portal, which is the fruit of much discussion and a campus focus group. 

“ConnectU is proving to be a powerful tool benefiting our applicants, employees and supervisors,” said Andrea M. Jekabsons, associate director of human resources. “The platform offers modern technology and a user-friendly experience. 

“While we anticipate everyone investing time to learn the new programs, the long-term benefits will outweigh the temporary inconvenience.”

The performance and engagement module for ConnectU includes tools for new employees’ probationary review and extended probationary review. It also can be used for progressive discipline notices, exit interview questionnaires, new hire checklists and staff performance reviews, including quarterly checks and mid-year reviews.

The new performance review tool is more than just a form and offers more options for supervisors to provide feedback and employees to track their growth and set goals. 

ConnectU was shaped heavily by feedback from surveys and a  focus group on the annual staff performance review process, Jekabsons said. The focus groups asked for the following, which were incorporated into ConnectU:

  • Value-based competencies that align with UM’s mission, vision, core values and creed
  • Mechanisms for feedback on a regular basis, which led the creation of options for quarterly check-ins, but not mandatory ones, with employees through ConnectU 
  • Being available year-round for managers to track performance
  • Ability to be customized by department objectives and job specific competencies 
  • Mechanisms to collect feedback as an opportunity for a supervisor’s manager to collect feedback from the supervisor’s employees as well as constituents on and off campus
  • Support of learning and development
  • More space for comments
  • At least one objective is required of employees
  • More training and computer access for non-computer-literate employees

For more information on ConnectU, visit the Department of Human Resources website.

Hispanic Heritage Series Films Offer ‘Peek into Far-Off Realities’

Movies from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries slated over coming month

‘The Second Mother’ is among the films featured in The University of Mississippi Department of Modern Languages’ Hispanic Heritage Series films. The series is part of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 13-Oct. 15 at the university. Submitted Photo

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi’s Department of Modern Languages will present five films from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries as part of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs until Oct. 15 at the university. 

The first of five Hispanic Heritage Series films, “Sealed Cargo” a Bolivian black comedy on the topic of dumping toxic wastes in rural areas, kicks off the series at 6 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 13) in Lamar Hall, Room 127. All screenings are free and open to the public. 

“Thanks to the dedication of our Spanish faculty, the Oxford and UM community will have another golden opportunity to explore and learn about Hispanic cultures,” said Daniel O’Sullivan, UM chair of modern languages. “Events like these showcase the dedication to cultural diversity from our department, the university and the surrounding community.” 

The five films have English subtitles. All screenings are at 6 p.m. in Lamar Hall, Room 127: 

  • Sept. 13, “Sealed Cargo” – This Bolivian black comedy focuses on the normally unfunny topic of the dumping of toxic waste in rural areas. It features magnificent photography of the Andean region with haunting images of indigenous culture appearing at crucial moments. 
  • Sept. 27, “Panama Canal Stories” – This film comprises a series of shorts that follow chronologically sequential stories. The connections are finely attuned so they appear to tell a single story on the integration and lack of integration of the Panamanian and U.S. populations in the Canal Zone.
  • Oct. 4, “The Second Mother” – The first Brazilian film to be featured in the series, “The Second Mother” focuses on the estranged daughter of a hard-working live-in housekeeper who suddenly appears, throwing into disarray the unspoken class barriers that exist within the home.
  • Oct. 11, “Summer 1993” – Six-year-old Frida moves in with her aunt and uncle after her mother dies. The rich, saturated tones of this film belie the troubles Frida has in adjusting to her new life.
  • Oct. 18, “Spider Thieves” – Several Chilean teenagers, including one who is pregnant, all of whom are from a poor section of town, decide it would be fun to see how the rich live. They break into upper-level apartments in skyscrapers from the outside. The film is based on a true story. 

The Hispanic Heritage Series is made possible with the support of Pragda, the Spanish Film, SPAIN Arts and Culture, and the secretary of state for the culture of Spain. See the trailers at

Major campus sponsors are the Department of Modern Languages, Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement, and Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society.

Several campus units also helped with publicity for the series, including the UM departments of English, history, political science, and sociology and anthropology; the College of Liberal Arts and its cinema minor program; Croft Institute for International Studies; and the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies, as well as the Oxford Film Festival.

This year’s series offers more diversity in both topics and languages, which was intentional, said Carmen Sánchez, instructor in modern languages and one of the event organizers.

Diane Marting, associate professor of modern languages and another of the organizers, noted the strength of the group of films. 

“This year, the series has several hard-to-see and well-made films from unexpected countries,” Marting said. “As a bonus, we also showcase four female directors.” 

The films do more than simply give viewers a chance to hear Spanish language, said Irene Kaufmann, UM lecturer in Spanish. 

“Watching foreign movies not only gives us an opportunity to peek into far-away realities and to listen to foreign languages; it also exposes us to a wider range of film styles,” Kaufmann said.

For more information, contact Marting at

Transportation Fair, Bike Share Demo Set for Sept. 12

Event helps Ole Miss community explore alternative ways to travel on campus, in Oxford

Providing safety information to cyclists and motorists is a focus of the 2018 University of Mississippi Transportation Fair as access to bicycles increases through programs like the short-term bike share and the UM Bike Shop’s semester-long rental program. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi will highlight modes of transportation, including busing, biking, ride-sharing and car-sharing, Wednesday (Sept. 12) during the 2018 UM Transportation Fair and Ride O’Rama.

The fair will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Galtney Lott Plaza on Business Row.

“As campus continues to grow, so do more sustainable transportation options,” said Lindsey Abernathy, associate director of the Office of Sustainability. “There can be a learning curve when incorporating these modes of transportation into our daily commutes, so this event is meant to be a learning opportunity for students, faculty and staff in a low-pressure, fun setting.”

This year’s fair will include an interactive bike share demonstration, or “Ride O’Rama,” during which students, faculty and staff can try out the Ole Miss Bike Share in a temporary bike lane. Cyclists and Office of Sustainability staff will be on hand with tips for riding safely on the road.

The Bike Share program, which launched in 2017, allows students, faculty and staff the opportunity to ride two hours a day for free.

Fair attendees also can learn how to load their bicycles onto an OUT bus and get more information about Zipcar and Zimride ride-sharing and the UM Bike Shop, among other transportation-related topics.

Mike Harris, UM director of parking and transportation, said he hopes many students, faculty and staff attend the fair to learn more about various options available for getting around campus and Oxford.

“Learning how to navigate bus routes and schedules and experience bike and car share programs helps you to become familiar with these type of transportation options,” Harris said. “(When students graduate), they will most likely be working in a city with these types of mobility options available.”

Participants who complete activities at the fair will be entered to win a “commuter kit,” including a backpack, water bottle and lunch container.

The UM Transportation Fair is hosted by the Department of Parking and Transportation and the Office of Sustainability. To learn more, visit

School of Engineering Welcomes New Dean David A. Puleo

Former Kentucky associate dean brings years of leadership experience, vision to position

David Puleo

OXFORD, Miss. – David A. Puleo, an administrator nationally respected for his activities in both academics and research, has been named the new dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Mississippi.

“Thanks to its leaders over the past 120 years, the (UM) school has a strong foundation, educating generations of engineers, computer scientists and geologists,” said Puleo, who assumes his duties at UM on Aug. 27. “The School of Engineering will play a key role in the university’s inspiring Flagship Forward strategic plan, and I believe my experiences at a large, public flagship university in the Southeast enable me to lead the school forward to ‘ever-increasing excellence.’”

A graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, he was the associate dean for research and graduate studies at the University of Kentucky. Puleo, who was a professor in the F. Joseph Halcomb III, M.D., Department of Biomedical Engineering at UK, also founded Regenera Materials LLC, in Lexington, Kentucky.

As graduate studies director, Puleo supervised academic policy development and implementation, new course and program development, graduate student recruitment in partnership with UK’s Graduate Studies Team, selection and awarding of College of Engineering graduate student fellowships, and graduate program assessment.

“Our School of Engineering remains an integral component of academic excellence and scholarship at the University of Mississippi,” said Noel Wilkin, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. “David Puleo’s direction will enhance our already strong and competitive position among institutions of higher learning around the country and beyond its borders.”

Puleo said he plans to immerse himself in the culture of Ole Miss and the engineering school, which will set the stage for drafting a strategic plan for the school using a “collaborative visioning” approach that involves stakeholders from all constituencies.

“We will create a roadmap, with objectives, strategies and metrics for maintaining and growing strong, hands-on undergraduate programs with high-impact components; growing and selectively adding graduate programs; expanding our research portfolio, addressing 21st-century challenges best served by interdisciplinary, team-based approaches; ensuring a diverse and inclusive environment; and acquiring resources needed to achieve these objectives,” he said.

This roadmap should lead to the longer-term goal of the UM School of Engineering being recognized regionally, and then nationally, for exceptional education, cutting-edge research and outstanding service to the state and the engineering profession.

“A key strength of the school is the broad-based and ‘high touch’ approach to undergraduate education,” Puleo said. “We must maintain that quality of educating the next generations of engineers, computer scientists and geologists while also expanding our graduate programs and the highly related research enterprise. The close proximity of multiple other schools, as well as the not-too-distant UM Medical Center, provide outstanding transdisciplinary educational and research opportunities.”

The new dean’s track record includes being a fellow in the International Union of Societies for Biomaterials Science and Engineering, the Biomedical Engineering Society and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. A member of the advisory board for Viking Scientific Inc. and Omicron Delta Kappa honor society, Puleo received UK’s Excellence in Teaching in 2011, 2013 and 2015 and the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research in 2013.

Yet these and other awards pale is comparison to the fulfillment Puleo said he derives from seeing others who worked with him become successful.

“This is the satisfaction of seeing ‘my’ students and faculty succeed,” he said. “Being able to facilitate these types of success led me to continue down an administrative path in my career.”

Previous positions Puleo held during his 27-year employment at the University of Kentucky include assistant professor of biomedical engineering, associate professor of biomedical engineering, adjunct associate professor in the College of Dentistry and professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, both in the College of Medicine at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. He also served as director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering before becoming chair after conversion to a department.

A prolific author, Puleo has written numerous refereed journal articles, papers and been published in several other publications. He has also been an invited presenter at numerous webinars, conference workshops and annual meetings.

As a researcher, the new dean has served as principal investigator and investigator of both internally and externally funded grants totaling millions. Heavily involved in service at all levels, he has chaired or served on national and state organizations and University of Kentucky committees.

Puleo and his wife, Sue, have two adult children, Nick and Angie.

While confident in his ability to continue building upon the UM engineering school’s legacy, he said he is still humbled by the challenge.

“The previous heads of the School of Engineering set a high standard and accomplished great things,” he said. “The call is also quite exciting, causing me to ponder the great opportunities to work with the students, staff, faculty and administrators to elevate the School of Engineering.”

For more information about the School of Engineering at the University of Mississippi, visit

Chemical Engineering Junior Wades into Study at Water Security Institute

Jordan Wescovich part of two-week study of Gulf Coast's water security issues

Jordan Wescovich spent part of her summer participating in the Mississippi Water Security Institute hosted by the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Submitted photo

Understanding the importance of water quality and availability, a University of Mississippi engineering student participated in the Mississippi Water Security Institute, which took place May 13-27.

Jordan Wescovich, a junior chemical engineering major from Ocean Springs, was among 17 students selected for the program. Students from Mississippi State University, Jackson State University, the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi Valley State University have also participated since the program’s inception in 2016. The institute was directed by Clifford Ochs, UM professor of biology.

UM’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College hosted the two-week experience, which focused on water security issues of the Gulf Coast region. Participants represented a wide range of academic disciplines, from science and engineering to business and public policy.

“We participated in a variety of activities related to conservation and sustainability,” Wescovich said. “We confronted questions of the relationships of water quality and availability to sound economic development and healthy ecosystems in urban environments.”

Funded by the Hearin Foundation of Jackson, the program’s overall purpose is to introduce honors students to the challenges and complexities of the use and management of water resources to meet present and future needs.

Wescovich had the opportunity to learn about water issues in Oxford as well as in her hometown.

“Our group spent time in both Oxford and Ocean Springs, learning the basics of water – including saltwater, freshwater and groundwater – from experts at Ole Miss and delved further into water issues that specifically affect the Gulf Coast while meeting with city officials, business owners, government agencies and residents along the coast,” she said.

At the end of the program, Wescovich presented a TED Talk titled “Transparency in Turbidity – What Are We Owed in What We Know?” This presentation, in conjunction with work from the entire group of student participants, comprised the 2018 Mississippi Water Security Institute white paper. The document was sent to the program’s collaborators and state leadership, including the Hearin Foundation and the Governor’s Office.

According to Wescovich, each of the WSI fellows came into the program with different notions of how to approach the issues surrounding water security as well as different goals of what to take away from the experience.

“Some people were used to thinking about water security in a purely environmental way, and others were used to thinking about water use as it pertained to industry,” Wescovich said. “It was certainly an eye-opener in terms of my daily habits concerning water use – like the water footprint that is a direct result of the foods I eat – and the way I now think about water security.”

In addition to her participation in WSI, Wescovich is secretary of the Ole Miss student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and a member of the AIChE car team. She also participated in the UM PULSE Leadership conference as a sophomore. Wescovich hopes to work toward more environmental-friendly and efficient chemical processes that are profitable and at the same time leave the environment virtually untouched.

“I would really enjoy doing this on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where fragile estuary systems deserve extra protection from human activity,” she said.




Jacob Najjar Is Just Getting Started

Civil engineering chair and professor notes achievements, sets sights on new goals

Yacoub ‘Jacob’ Najjar has been chair and professor of civil engineering at UM since July 2012. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Six years ago, Yacoub “Jacob” Najjar was one of two new department chairs in the University of Mississippi School of Engineering. With vision and dedication, the chair and professor of civil engineering accepted the challenge to build upon the solid foundation established by his predecessors and reach even higher levels of achievement.

Najjar reflected on the department’s growth over the past few years.

“Our graduate program has been nationally ranked for most of the period,” he said. “We have been ranked in the top 70s among similar programs within public universities. Our faculty has been active in research, teaching and service at local, national and international levels.”

As examples, Najjar noted his civil engineering colleagues’ achievements: Cristiane Surbeck serves as president of the Environmental and Water Resources Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); Waheed Uddin has been recognized multiple times at international, national and state levels; Ahmed Al-Ostaz has been named director of the newly established Center for Graphene Research and Innovation and as the leader of the UM constellation on disaster resilience.

Also, Elizabeth Ervin and Hakan Yasarer have been picked to attend selective teaching workshops; Hunain Alkhateb is nationally known for her work on additive manufacturing and 3-D printing; and Christopher Mullen is an active member of the ASCE Engineering Mechanics Institute Objective Resilience Committee.

“Even though we have achieved a good amount, I believe the department will realize more recognitions in the future,” Najjar said.

One of Najjar’s goals was to create and maintain a happy civil engineering family by encouraging a collegial work environment. He said he believes that, too, is being achieved.

“I see good interactions among CE faculty and staff,” he said. “To reinforce this even further, a few years ago I started the pre-faculty meeting social time. I dedicate at least 30 minutes before our faculty meetings for social interactions. I am a firm believer that for the family members to nicely work together, they have to first like each other. I think we are on the right track.”

Finally, Najjar wanted to align the departmental strategic goals with those of the School of Engineering and the university to efficiently serve the community, state and nation. The work of the CE faculty on this front has been “outstanding,” he said.

“Ms. (Grace) Rushing and Dr. Alkhateb (current and former faculty advisers, respectively, of UM’s ASCE student chapter) have been doing a wonderful job on outreach activities, such as the annual catapult competition, Science Olympiad water tower and UM STEM/engineering summer camps for students from various Mississippi schools,” Najjar said. “Dr. Ervin has organized various activities, via the Society of Women Engineers, by engaging many girls from Mississippi high schools. Most of the CE faculty are effectively engaged in technical and service activities through state and the national level committees.”

Najjar said that securing ABET accreditation in 2016 for the maximum allowance of six years and passing the evaluation with a “clean sheet” has been the most rewarding experience for all in the CE department.

“It was a collective effort of everyone in the department,” he said. “Furthermore, the successful efforts of the department’s administration, faculty and staff were recognized with the 2015 Excellence in Promoting Inclusiveness in Graduate Education Award from the UM Graduate School. In addition, a number of CE faculty and staff received the School of Engineering research and service awards.”

Najjar received the 2017 CE Department Award for Excellence in Teaching from the ASCE student chapter, which he said was especially rewarding because his teaching contributions have been reduced since he became department chair.

A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, Najjar served as interim chair and professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University prior to joining UM. His teaching awards and honors include the 2006 Midwest Section Outstanding Teaching Award from the American Society for Engineering Education and the 2012 Kansas State Commerce Bank Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award.

Najjar’s research focuses on the application of artificial neural networks and computational mechanics to advance the civil infrastructure. His research on the interaction of soil and civil structures, transportation, geomechanics, geosynthetics and geoenvironmental systems has yielded more than 90 peer-refereed articles.

Najjar and his wife, Oana, have three sons: Danny, 25, Adam, 12, and Noah, 10.


Geologists Attempt to Determine When Mississippi River Changed Direction

Thomas Varner and Jennifer Gifford conduct study with Undergraduate Summer Research grant

Thomas Varner takes soil samples from an embankment along the Mississippi River as part of his senior undergraduate research project. Submitted photo by Jennifer Gifford

Did the ancient Mississippi River ever flow in a different direction?

That and other questions about what Native Americans named the “Father of Waters” may soon be answered, thanks to new research being conducted by scientists at the University of Mississippi.

Thomas Varner, a senior geology and geological engineering major from South Bend, Indiana, and Jennifer Gifford, assistant professor of geology and geological engineering, are studying zircons (extremely durable heavy minerals often found as detrital grains in sedimentary rocks) to determine the river’s age and tectonic environment of origin. The project, funded by an internal UM Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship Track 1 grant, uses detrital zircon age patterns as a tracer of sediment source.

“Through analysis of a zircon’s uranium and lead isotopic composition, it is possible to age-date and correlate the grains back to their original source locality,” Varner said. “Using that information, we can infer a piece of the depositional history of the zircon’s most recent unit. Through analyzing the age spectra of the zircons from the McNairy Sandstone to infer the depositional history of the Late Cretaceous, the goal of this project is to determine when the Mississippi River began flowing in its current north-to-south orientation.”

Before applying for the Undergraduate Summer Research grant, Varner and Gifford collected samples of the target unit, the McNairy Sandstone, from northeastern Mississippi and south central Tennessee. Two gallon-sized bags of samples were collected at each of 10 sites, predetermined outcrops of the McNairy formation. Notes about the specific location, sample lithology and details of the outcrop at each site were recorded.

Throughout the spring 2018 semester and through the summer, the pair continued to work on the project.

“After I collected the zircons from each sample, they were mounted in epoxy and then polished to expose the center of the grains,” Varner said. “I used a scanning electron microscope at another location to image the grains to be able to interpret their morphology. Once the zircons (were) imaged, analysis required travel to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to use an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer.”

The ICP-MS ionized a portion of the individual zircon grains, which was then analyzed for uranium and lead isotopes to calculate an age for each grain. Now that the age spectra for each sample have been obtained, Varner is working on interpreting the provenance of this section of the McNairy sandstone in comparison to that which is exposed in the Illinois Basin. He will present the findings of their study at the annual Geological Society of America scientific conference in Indianapolis in October.

“Northern Mississippi contains many Cretaceous units, some of which spread through Tennessee and Kentucky, and only three of which are present in southern Illinois, where they are thin and discontinuous,” Gifford said. “These deposits accumulated at the end of the Mesozoic because subsidence along the late Proterozoic-early Paleozoic Reelfoot Rift system created a topographic low known as the Mississippi Embayment.”

One previous detrital zircon study of Maastrichtian sandstones in the Mississippi Embayment provides important insight into the nature of depositional systems along the southern margin of Appalachia during latest Cretaceous time following the closure of the Western Interior Seaway. This project furthers another geographical study in which a major change in the dominant drainage trajectory of the ancient Mississippi River in the late Cretaceous, from west-flowing across the continent to south-flowing to the Mississippi Embayment, was observed.

“This successfully narrowed down the time span of the formation of the Mississippi River to more than 40 Ma (million years ago),” Gifford said. “Further studies support these Early Cretaceous paleogeographic interpretations.”

By analyzing further detrital zircons along the trend of the Mississippi Embayment through Mississippi, Tennessee and possibly Kentucky, Gifford and Varner hope to determine exactly when the Maastrichtian sediments were deposited during one (or more) of these transgressive cycles.

“Further data will allow for a more robust insight into the depositional patterns along the southern margin of Appalachia within the Mississippi Embayment during the Late Cretaceous, as well as the evolution of the Mississippi River into its current form and setting up the template for sediment transport that persists today,” Gifford said. “This will, in turn, allow for a better interpretation of when the Mississippi River began running north to south in its current orientation.”

For more information about the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, visit




Reinemann-Goss Returns to Alma Mater as Faculty Member

Accomplished alumna is newest assistant professor in burgeoning biomedical engineering program

Nikki Reinemann-Goss, a 2012 UM alumna, returns to her alma mater as assistant professor of chemical engineering in the new biomedical engineering program. Submitted photo

Even before Dana Nicole “Nikki” Reinemann-Goss graduated from the University of Mississippi, she sensed that one day she would return to her alma mater – not as a student but as a faculty member.

Starting Aug. 17, the university’s 13th Barry M. Goldwater Scholar will be an assistant professor of chemical engineering in conjunction with the university’s new biomedical engineering program.

“I applied for this position for a number of reasons,” said Reinemann-Goss, who earned bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering and chemistry from UM in 2013 and her Ph.D. in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Vanderbilt University last May. “The prospect of building the new biomedical engineering program at Ole Miss from the ground up was an exciting opportunity I could not pass up. In addition, I would be able to return to my home state and alma mater to pursue exciting scientific areas.”

Reinemann-Goss’ research interests include probing the intersection of biology, physics and engineering by investigating higher-level cytoskeletal architecture and its constituent motor proteins.

“These are important for vital life processes such as cell division and motility,” the Batesville native said. “We can start probing how cell environmental factors or potential cancer drugs alter a certain cellular system and thus potentially make more effective therapies in the future.”

Starting this fall, Reinemann-Goss will teach a course, Biological Transport, for juniors. Her short-term goals include being effective in the classroom, establishing a biomolecular engineering lab and being a mentor to the BME students. Her long-term goals are helping the BME department develop its final curriculum, involving students more heavily in research across campus and publishing results (from both undergraduate and graduate students) in high-impact journals.

“I plan on achieving these goals by really getting to know my students and recruiting them early to work in the lab,” Reinemann-Goss said. “By obtaining and retaining students starting in their sophomore (or even freshman) year, they have time to develop really substantial experimental results that are publication worthy by their junior or senior year.”

Reinemann-Goss said to be an author on a journal article as an undergraduate is quite an accomplishment and could help foster love for continuing down the research track.

“Even if they ultimately don’t chose that path, this experience would be invaluable in applying for national scholarships, graduate school or medical school,” she said. “At the end of the day, I want to help my students be as successful for their chosen career path as they can be.”

Hiring Reinemann-Goss was a ‘rare opportunity,’ said Dwight Waddell, associate professor of electrical engineering and the BME program’s director.

“Not only is she incredibly qualified having graduated with her Ph.D. from a prestigious biomedical engineering program at Vanderbilt, she comes to us already attuned to life at Ole Miss and Oxford,” Waddell said. “Dr. Reinemann-Goss has expertise in biomolecular engineering, which will be immediately put to use through a shared research agenda with multiple departments on campus including biochemistry, biomolecular sciences in the School of Pharmacy as well as chemical engineering. We are thrilled to have her back, and we hope it still feels like home.”

Reinemann-Goss’ former professors recalled her academic achievements and dedication.

“I had the privilege to mentor Nikki from her first day in college,” said Nathan Hammer, associate professor of chemistry. “Because of her dedication and unique aptitude in chemistry, I recruited her to work in my research group.

“From day one in the lab, her natural abilities to perform high-level science were evident. She developed her research project on her own without any assistance and has operated on the level of a graduate student for the past few years. She’s a brilliant young scientist who has a bright future ahead of her. Her success is due not only to her intelligence and aptitude for science but also her unparalleled work ethic.”

Charles L. “Chuck” Hussey, chair emeritus and professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry, echoed those sentiments.

“Nikki is a multidimensional, exceptionally talented student,” said Hussey, now associate dean for research and graduate education in UM’s College of Liberal Arts. “She sees and understands concepts that most of her peers may never understand. We are very lucky that she chose to seek a degree in chemistry with us. She is destined for a great career in science or engineering.”

A Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College alumna, Reinemann-Goss also held memberships in Phi Kappa Phi, Tau Beta Pi, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and American Chemical Society. Conducting research under the supervision of Hammer, she presented at the 242nd national meeting of the American Chemical Society and the 41st International Conference on Environmental Systems of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Her extracurricular activities included serving in the Society of Women Engineers and the university’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and playing trumpet in the Pride of the South marching band.

In addition to having been a Goldwater Scholar, Reinemann-Goss’ said her most gratifying personal achievement was to receive a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

“Receiving this funding allowed me to pursue the research path I wanted throughout graduate school and thus helped shape and build my scientific toolbox that I plan to use at Ole Miss,” she said.

She was also involved in the Engineering Ambassadors Network at Vanderbilt.

“Through this organization, I co-coordinated an Engineering Day at Vanderbilt for local eighth-grade students who come from low-income, high-risk environments to expose them to a variety of engineering disciplines,” Reinemann-Goss said. “They chose three disciplines and then performed related hands-on activities led by graduate students. Seeing their confidence in themselves and in STEM work grow throughout the day was an outstanding experience.”

Reinemann-Goss is married to Timothy Goss, a band director for the South Panola School District in Batesville. The couple has a son, Will, who starts first grade this fall. Her hobbies include spending time with her family and playing trumpet in local ensembles and at church.