Catherine Grace Norris: Muzungu from Mississippi

UM geology and geological engineering graduate joins Peace Corps, works in Zambia

Catherine Norris (center) embraces twin sisters Jane (left) and Joy Mulambila. ‘We are triplets, and they taught me how to scream when you see vermin as well as how to cook.’ Submitted photo.

It’s a long way from the Grove, but Zambia is going to be home now for Catherine Grace Norris (BSGE 16).

Norris took her “still warm” diploma around the world to find relevance and reward in her major. She is working with strangers who have become her closest friends overnight, literally. The night is a good time to have close friends when living in a mud hut, draped in mosquito netting, listening to the small and large sounds that waft through the walls and settle silently in the corners.

So, the truth is, Norris is no ordinary young woman.

With a good education and job prospects to contemplate, she jumped off the edge of the cliff and joined the Peace Corps, a decision born of spirit, spunk and gargantuan optimism. Norris embraced the certainty that there would be hardships and languages to learn, she opened her future to the world and gave up her apartment. Little did she know that the three-month training and the mountain of “Google-ese” were only the caption on a full-color, 3-D, action-packed movie of her future.

Norris calls herself stubborn, but committed may be a better word. At 23, she is both respectful and impulsive, and she touts being adaptable as well. She served for two years as the Girl Friday in the dean’s office in the School of Engineering and did some awesome work, all the while under appreciating the indoor plumbing and Wi-Fi. She has neither now, but she is effusive in her praise of the Peace Corps’ grassroots development model and “mandatory” orientation.

Norris references her upbringing in the Bible Belt and acknowledges the culture shock of Luapula Province in the district of Mwense bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has picked up some Bemba with a just sprinkle of Lunda. Norris has fought the good fight with malaria mosquitoes and rumored black mamba snakes (lethally venomous), and she still insists “this is the most amazing thing I have ever done.”

One of the early highlights of her Peace Corps assignment was discovering an elephant orphanage near her town. Although it is a tourist destination, it has a commendable mission to rehabilitate elephants orphaned by the poaching in Zambia. While the entrance fee of 50 kwacha (about $5) was beyond her Peace Corps salary … “it’s free on Mondays!”

Norris’ work has involved meeting with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a rice nongovernmental organization, to discuss hosting a workshop in Luapula Province. She frequently hosts demonstrations on how to make compost fertilizer and smaller projects involving animal husbandry, women’s empowerment and hydrogeology. At the end of the day, Norris cooks her dinner on her brazier, fends off mosquitoes, plays with her cat and dog, and watches the corners of the room for signs of life.

A true sign of contentment is that Catherine signs her blog “Your African Queen.” Not a bad job, and who wouldn’t want to be Katharine Hepburn?

 

 

Valuable Lessons from a Candy Bar

Assistant professor demonstrates practical applications of chemical engineering to freshmen

Madeleine Mixon (left) and Cole Bofrek prepare caramel for their chocolate bar. Photo by Brenda Prager

Chemical engineering students enrolled in Ch E 101: Introduction to Chemical Engineering were required midway through the semester to use their cooking expertise to prepare a Snickers bar. Why, you might ask?

After observing the strengths and pitfalls of carefully preparing caramel dispersed with roasted peanuts, and mixing nougat to the correct consistency with a scrumptious peanut butter flavor, the freshmen investigated in depth a chocolate bar manufacturing process.

Many were surprised to learn that everyday items often taken for granted were part of an intricate chemical process. They learned that food manufacturing requires careful planning of unit operations and their order within the overall process, as well as accurate control of many variables (particularly temperature) within each step.

Students worked in groups of four, learning valuable teamwork skills, which included the inevitable compromise and dealing with conflict and, of course, an overall enriching experience and greater depth of learning through collaboration.

Writing up a practical report was a first-time experience for many students. Not only were they required to describe the chocolate bar preparation, but they also had to consider likely equipment items, draw process flow sheets, and conduct basic chemical engineering calculations such as flow rate and average molecular weight of the nougat stream.

I am a chemical engineer and educator with both industry and academic experience, and have been implementing differentiated teaching and learning techniques into my freshman classes in order to present students with a more targeted education that best matches their learning needs. This method of teaching is common in many K-12 settings but underutilized at the university level.

Freshmen often come from varied backgrounds and different high school experiences, and it is important that their first year adapts to their needs and assists in progression of both learning and retention. Differentiation is characterized by a) understanding student need; b) presenting concepts in multiple ways; c) providing challenging learning experiences; d) promoting collaborative tasks; and e) progressing students into independent learners.

By successfully preparing students with these skills in their freshman year, they are more likely to thrive in later years and proceed to completion of their course.

Through the Snickers bar project, students learned new chemical engineering skills and reviewed most of the engineering calculations covered previously within the course as well. Throughout the project, students were required to make decisions and judgments about various sections of their written reports, providing real-life experiences of working in teams and becoming independent learners.

The semesterlong course contained targeted instruction covering the five points described above. Formal feedback from students upon completion of the course showed important progress in the implementation of differentiated learning at a college level. For example, 83 percent of the class found active reading and problem-solving study skills sessions extremely or very useful; and 87 percent used the differentiated homework sheets to challenge themselves or choose questions matching their current ability level.

With respect to the chocolate bar project, 70 percent learned a lot about cooperation and compromise within a group setting; almost 60 percent were more confident with engineering calculations encountered earlier in the semester; and 87 percent learned – as a team – the key points in writing a technical report.

Research in this area is important to pursue. It is vital that students receive a targeted education to meet their needs and successfully graduate. STEM education is important for the nation and is sadly in decline, so teaching and learning strategies that enable students to thrive and become educated in STEM will greatly boost both the local and national economy.

Brenda Prager is an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the UM School of Engineering.

 

UM Engineering Science Ph.D. Continues Research at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

Mamun Miah studying earthquake hazard simulations, risk assessments

Mamun Miah, a UM chemical engineering graduate, is a postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Submitted photo

From the suburbs of his native Dhaka, Bangladesh, to the Energy Geosciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, Mamun Miah has been on an incredible journey. And the faculty, courses and programs of the University of Mississippi School of Engineering have played an important role in his career path.

“During my undergraduate study, I felt the need to further my technical as well as communicative skills, which made me think of coming to the USA,” Miah said. “Following that dream, I applied and got accepted into the civil engineering programs at several U.S. universities. Ole Miss has a good engineering program and offered me financial assistance, which helped me decide to attend Ole Miss eventually.”

After earning his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in 2009, Miah entered UM.

“Ole Miss is a great school, not only for its academic curriculum but also for its sincere engagement in students’ overall well-being,” he said. “Some courses that shaped my career include Finite Element Analysis for Structures provided by Dr. Christopher Mullen, Continuum Mechanics by Dr. Ahmed Al-Ostaz, Shear Strength of Soil by Dr. Chung Song, Groundwater Modeling by Dr. Robert Holt and Engineering Analysis by Dr. Wei-Yen Chen. Ole Miss Engineering also has some career fair and diversity inclusion programs, which helped me further my career by building connections and communications beyond the school.”

Miah’s former UM engineering professors have fond memories of him.

“A hardworking student, Mamun showed great interest to learn new technologies and accept challenging research topics,” said Waheed Uddin, a professor of civil engineering who directed Miah’s thesis. “His M.S. thesis research involved traditional two-dimensional and innovative three-dimensional geospatial analysis for floodplain mapping and aviation infrastructure visualization. I am glad that he successfully pursued and completed his doctoral degree.”

“In academic and technical matters, he transitioned almost seamlessly from a transportation-oriented master thesis to a structural engineering-related research project to a geophysics-based dissertation,” said Christopher Mullen, professor of civil engineering and Miah’s dissertation director. “Mamun has demonstrated both self-motivation and talent in applying programming-based computer modeling to numerical simulations of some very complex problems in engineering science. It has been a pleasure to see him develop from a graduate student unsure of his direction in life to a highly skilled, self-assured postdoctoral researcher at one of the world’s most respected government research laboratories.”

Yacoub “Jacob” Najjar, chair and professor of civil engineering, said Miah was an outstanding graduate student during his time at Ole Miss.

“Besides working on his research, he was also nicely engaged in teaching and helping CE faculty in a number of courses,” he said. “Above all, Mamun is one of those exceptional doctoral students who was able to choose his Ph.D. research topic and get it funded by an external sponsor. We are very proud of him and his achievements. I wish him the best in all of his future endeavors.”

It was at a UM career fair where Miah connected with the Berkeley Lab.

“I attended a National Lab day in 2012, which was held at The Inn at Ole Miss,” Miah said. “By talking and engaging in discussions with the scientists from across the nation, I eventually availed an internship at the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2013. After a successful internship, I wrote a grant proposal to LBNL for my Ph.D. thesis, which they approved.”

At Berkeley, Miah found a very sound research resource on his thesis topic. He also kept attending science and engineering seminars provided by some of the world’s most renowned scientists and professors.

“I think this internship opportunity had a tremendous effect on my career success,” he said.

Miah received his master’s in engineering science in 2010 and Ph.D. in the same field in 2016, both from Ole Miss. He then became a postdoctoral fellow at the Energy Geosciences Division at LBNL.

“I am working on exascale-level computing for regional-scale earthquake hazard simulations and risk assessments in the San Francisco Bay Area,” he said. “I am also working on earthquake soil-structure interaction for safety of nuclear power plants managed by (the) U.S. Department of Energy.”

Miah said he also appreciated the instruction he received at Bangladesh University.

“Almost all the faculty members have a very solid understanding as well as teaching capability for the comprehensive civil engineering program,” he said. “Their teaching style along with relevant learning materials and homework problems made the courses really interesting to learn and apply for the practical engineering purpose. I owe them a lot for my today’s career.”

For more about Mamun Miah and his work at LBNL, visit

https://eesa.lbl.gov/meet-postdoc-mamun-miah/

By Edwin Smith

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Inoka Widanagamage Joins Geological Engineering

Newest assistant professor brings teaching excellence, research expertise to department

Inoka Widanagamage conducting geological research in the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. Submitted photo

Inoka Widanagamage has been fascinated by geology as long as she can remember and wanted to share her fascination with others interested in the subject. As the newest faculty member in the University of Mississippi’s Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, she is fulfilling her passion by teaching class and conducting research.

“I found this position through the higher education website,” Widanagamage said. “Because of my interest of teaching geology, I thought that this position is a good fit for my interest and expertise. So I decided to apply.”

Widanagamage’s educational background extends from pure geology (e.g., Precambrian geology, structural geology, mineralogy, petrology, high-temperature geochemistry) to applied geology (e.g., environmental geochemistry, low-temperature geochemistry). She has the ability to teach courses in a wide spectrum.

“I teach Earth Dynamics, Environmental Geology, Economic Geology, Geology and Geological Engineering seminar, Physical Geology, Historical Geology and co-teach Mineralogy and Petrology,” she said. “During the summer, I also teach a geological field camp in Ada, Oklahoma. I enjoy sharing my teaching and research experiences with students in a classroom setting to develop their theoretical and practical knowledge.”

Her research interests are stable isotope geochemistry, environmental mineralogy, structural geology and tectonics.

“I mainly focus on the trace metal (stable isotope) distribution in biogeochemical cycles,” Widanagamage said. “I approach my research goals via three major components: studying the natural environment, designing and performing laboratory experiments, and modeling.”

Widanagamage said her short-term plan is to establish a strong teaching profile by teaching a variety of geology courses according to the departmental requirements. Her long-term plan is to develop new upper-level courses related to her research background.

“Also as a long-term plan, I expect to work with senior undergraduate geology students to continue my research projects that I initiated during my tenure as a postdoctoral associate in Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey,” she said. “I am also working on [a] few external grant proposals, seeking potential collaborations within, as well as outside, of our department.”

Widanagamage is a welcome addition to the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, said Gregg Davidson, chair and professor.

“She has infectious enthusiasm for teaching, both in the classroom and getting students out into the field,” he said. “We are excited that her position will be reclassified in 2018 as an instructional assistant professor. This will allow us to take greater advantage of her research expertise in isotopes and geochemistry, expanding her impact with Honors College classes, assisting with undergraduate research and teaching graduate-level classes.”

Widanagamage received both the Best Teaching Assistant Award and the Outstanding Ph.D. Student Award in the Department of Geology at Kent State University in 2014. She was also nominated for a University Fellowship Award there the previous year and completed an e-Learning training course with honors at UM.

“These are among my most gratifying professional achievements thus far,” Widanagamage said.

She is married to Waruna Weerasinghe, a mechanical engineering student at the university. The couple has one son, Senidu Weerasinghe. Widanagamage said she enjoys spending time with her family and, of course, exploring the geology of the earth.

By Edwin Smith

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