Thomas Werfel Joins Biomedical Engineering Faculty

Assistant professor brings research experience, scholarship to position

Thomas A. Werfel is an assistant professor in the University of Mississippi’s new biomedical engineering program. Submitted photo

Recognizing it as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to be involved with something “very special,” Thomas Werfel has joined the faculty of the newly launched biomedical engineering program at the University of Mississippi.

“I was excited to come here and help build the new program in biomedical engineering because I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than looking back 30 years from now and being able to reflect on the immense impact this program will have for students, industry partners and the University of Mississippi,” said the new assistant professor of chemical engineering.

“I was also drawn to the University of Mississippi because of the university’s emphasis on strong undergraduate education and reputation as a liberal arts college. I think studying engineering at a liberal arts institution generates a unique student compared to graduates from engineering and technology schools.”

Werfel said he wants his students to excel in reading, writing, communication and creativity.

“I am convinced that those who do so will differentiate themselves from their peers and find rapid career advancement,” he said. “Thus, I felt that the strengths of UM aligned well with my teaching philosophy.”

Werfel is a welcome addition to the biomedical engineering program, said John O’Haver, chair and professor of chemical engineering.

“Dr. Werfel brings some exciting research, which dovetails nicely with that done by Dr. Adam Smith (associate professor of chemical engineering),” O’Haver said. “Their collaborations should prove very productive and raise the national visibility of them both.”

Werfel teaches Biomaterials, Immunoengineering, and Drug and Gene Delivery. He said he hopes to develop more electives for upperclassmen and graduate students over the next few years.

“I perceived that my research program would benefit by synergizing with existing strengths here in the School of Pharmacy, departments of Biology, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, the National Center for Physical Acoustics and the University of Mississippi Medical Center,” Werfel said, adding that his experience at UM has been excellent so far.

“The staff here are (second) to none and have been so helpful for helping me get oriented,” he said. “The other faculty are very welcoming and collegial. The students are positive and hardworking. And there are ample opportunities to collaborate in research.”

Werfel said his short-term goals are to make his research lab fully functional, recruit graduate students, secure independent research funding, develop the courses mentioned above, and identify opportunities to serve at UM, in Oxford and with professional organizations.

His long-term goals are to maintain an independently funded, highly active research lab, publish primary research articles in highly visible journals, teach exciting and interactive courses, contribute to the growth of the biomedical engineering program and become a leader at UM.

“I have created a career development plan that focuses on growth in teaching, research, service and leadership to achieve my short- and long-term goals,” Werfel said. “Through my career development plan, I identified where I want to be five years from now and created a ‘roadmap’ to get there.”

Werfel said a fulfilling professional achievement was being awarded an F32 Postdoctoral Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health on his first try.

“Receiving the award was really a culmination of all the hard work I put in as a graduate student and was a strong validation that pursuing a career in research and academics was the right choice for me,” he said.

Werfel earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Murray State University and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, both from Vanderbilt University. He and his wife, Ashton, have a daughter, Finley Beth. The family loves to spend time exploring the Square, playing in Avent Park or having a picnic in the Grove.

“I spend a lot of time cooking,” Werfel said. “I also love to be outdoors, whether it be walking, hiking, camping or gardening.”


An Era Passes

Eassons retire aprons after two-decade tailgate service to UM engineering family

Greg and Darlene Easson have cooked out at School of Engineering tailgates for 20 years. Photo by Bill Dabney

Time is money.

If the adage is accurate, Greg and Darlene Easson have, by now, made a major gift to the University of Mississippi School of Engineering.

For the past 20 years, the Oxford couple has spent football-weekend Friday nights shopping and cooking, preparing to serve the next day’s breakfast and lunch in the Circle, pre- and postgame, to hundreds of members of the School of Engineering’s extended family.

“When we started out, we were just cooking about three-dozen burgers for a few friends on a Weber grill that we carried up here. Then it got bigger and bigger,” said Greg Easson, the school’s associate dean for research and graduate programs, director of the Mississippi Mineral Resources Institute, and professor of geology and geological engineering.

“On a normal weekend, when we have a pregame in the afternoon, we don’t count people but we look at the number of plates. So we start out with a package of 250 plates, and we’ll go through two of those.”

That’s a lot of breakfast burritos, bratwurst and burgers. The Eassons also serve up two kinds of wings, pulled pork and a variety of sliders. Not to mention the sides: coleslaw, mac and cheese and more – all of which they assemble from scratch at home on those football Friday nights.

For an 11 a.m. game, they arrive before sunrise, light their Sterno warmers and begin serving a piping-hot breakfast cafeteria-style. The location is always the same, strategically located between Brevard Hall and the Center for Manufacturing Excellence – both of which house engineering classes. Crowds return to the tent week after week, year after year.

It’s good for business, Dean David Puleo said.

“School of Engineering tailgating has been an outstanding event, where we have a mix of future students, current students, faculty, staff and alumni who come back and engage in conversations,” he said. “It’s the past, present and future meeting together to enjoy a social activity and to get to know one another and ultimately enjoy a good football game.”

Puleo said the tailgate often serves as prospective students’ introduction to campus, one that frequently results in their ultimate enrollment at Ole Miss.

It’s not only the food that welcomes visitors but the atmosphere as well. The School of Engineering tent is well-appointed with big-screen televisions and comfortable seating, where Rebel fans and visitors alike share a tailgating experience like no other.

“When TVs in the Grove were a novelty, we would get huge crowds around the tent, and both teams would be cheering or booing or whatever,” Darlene Easson said. “It’s always been a really good atmosphere. We’ve always been the place where both students and families know they can gather on game days.”

Rain or shine. For 20 years. This year, however, the Eassons will hang up their aprons. They’re ready to take a turn on the receiving end of those serving spoons.

“It’s great to see somebody like him do what he’s done, and I don’t know what they’re going to do because he’s going to retire after this year,” said Tom Riddell of Madison, a neighboring tailgater who has supported the School of Engineering tent with monetary gifts for years. “Who’s going to take his place?

“He’s doing God’s work, in my opinion, and that’s the reason I support him and the engineering group so much, because this tailgate is open to anybody.”

A pin Darlene Easson wears seems to capture the essence of the couple’s philosophy.

It simply says, “Kind.”


History Makers: Three UM Students, 1 alumna among Rhodes Scholarship Finalists

Jarvis Benson, Jaz Brisack, John Chappell, Chinelo Ibekwe set to compete for coveted award

Jarvis Benson

OXFORD, Miss. – For the first time ever, the University of Mississippi boasts four 2019 finalists for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarships, which draw students from around the world to study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. 

Jarvis Benson, Jaz Brisack and John Chappell will compete for Rhodes Scholarships in meetings Nov. 16-17 in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to those current UM students, Chinelo Ibekwe, a 2018 Ole Miss chemical engineering graduate from Lagos, Nigeria, was named a finalist in the Rhodes Scholarships for West Africa program. She will interview Dec. 1 in her category.

UM has had 25 Rhodes Scholars and many Rhodes finalists in its history, but never four finalists in one year.

Having four finalists is a testament not only to the students, but also to the university’s faculty, said Douglass Sullivan-González, dean of the university’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, where Benson, Brisack and Chappell are students. 

“Our pride and joy are immeasurable,” Sullivan-González said. “That our university has produced four finalists for the prestigious Rhodes scholarship means that our faculty and staff have worked with some incredible scholars who have stood up to the questions of the day, and the world has taken notice.

“Once again, our flagship university produces an intellectual nexus to challenge and provoke, and our students engage this moment with verve. What a great time to be working at the University of Mississippi.”

The Rhodes Scholarships, which were created in 1902, bring outstanding students from many countries to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Besides “intellectual distinction,” the selection committee seeks excellence in qualities of mind and of person, which combined offer the promise of effective service to the world in the decades ahead.

Rhodes Scholars receive tuition, travel, room and board, and a stipend for two years of study at Oxford University, with the possibility of being renewed for a third year.

Benson, a senior Croft international studies and Spanish major from Grenada, serves as president of the UM Black Student Union. He has worked on civil rights, voting rights, immigration and education and was a 2018 Truman Scholarship finalist for Mississippi. He’s looking forward to representing the university. 

“To be selected as a Rhodes finalist is surreal,” Benson said. “I am so blessed to have the chance to represent the university. While I am very excited for the opportunity to further my education at Oxford, I am more excited to show that people who look like me are able to attend and thrive in academic environments.

“To be selected as a finalist, I hope, is to show that it is possible.” 

Jaz Brisack

Brisack, a senior general studies and journalism major from Oxford, is the 2018 Truman Scholar for Mississippi and has a long history as a champion for human, civil and labor rights in Mississippi. She is president of the College Democrats, a frequent contributor to The Daily Mississippian and was a teacher-adviser for the Sunflower Freedom Project in 2016. 

“The U.K.’s historical dominance on the world stage, and Oxford’s position as that empire’s center of intellectual thought, make this school and this degree program the perfect place to deepen my understanding of how power structures emerge, evolve and can best be influenced or fundamentally altered,” Brisack said. “Interacting with professors and other students who are engaging with these issues from myriad global perspectives will give me the opportunity to critically challenge my own ideas and learn from others’ ranges of experience.”

Chappell, a senior international studies and Arabic major from Albuquerque, New Mexico, co-founded Mississippi Votes and works on international human and civil rights. He is a 2017 Barksdale Scholar.

John Chappell

He said he’s thrilled to be in the competition with Brisack and Benson, both of whom he said are friends and partners in community organizing and coalition building at Ole Miss. Being selected is a testament to the people and communities who have made him who he is today, Chappell said.

“I absolutely could not have come this far without the support of the Croft Institute, Honors College and broader university community, as well as the people who have helped me create homes away from home in Mississippi and abroad,” Chappell said. “My family and hometown community of Albuquerque also make me who I am, and I hope to make them proud in my future career.”

Last year, Ibekwe was a semifinalist for the Rhodes Scholarships for West Africa program , which was unveiled in 2017 to support innovative young leaders in West Africa. Ibekwe was a SMBHC student.

Chinelo Ibekwe

Her long-term goal is to serve as Nigeria’s minister of health. She is particularly passionate about introducing advanced technology into the country’s health sector, as well as reforming maternal and child health care policies.

“As Africa is viewed as the last frontier in development, it is important that the next generation of leaders and policy makers – Rhodes Scholars – understands Africa’s cultural and political landscape,” Ibekwe said. “I look forward to tapping into the diverse perspectives in the Rhodes Scholar community to prepare myself for the challenges that I may experience on the journey to prosperity for Africa.”

Mississippi River Pollution Topic of Next Science Cafe

UM professor speaking on water contamination, solutions at Nov. 13 event

Inoka Widanagamage

OXFORD, Miss. – Protecting the Mississippi River and preserving farming communities in the state is the focus of this month’s Oxford Science Cafe.

The monthly program, organized by the University of Mississippi Department of Physics and Astronomy, will feature Inoka Widanagamage, UM instructional assistant professor of geology and geological engineering. It is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 13) at Uptown Coffee, 265 North Lamar Blvd.

Widanagamage, a low-temperature geochemist, said she hopes to educate the community on the types of pollution affecting the “Mighty Mississippi.”

She plans to discuss the negative effects that industrial and farming pollution are having on the Mississippi River, one of the most polluted waterways in North America. She will propose solutions to the river’s many environmental problems and discuss steps that can be taken to protect and improve agricultural lands negatively affected by the river.

“(The Oxford Science Cafe) is really an important program where you can reach out to the community and share knowledge,” Widanagamage said. “It will help the community to understand the importance of protecting the Mississippi River.”

The Oxford Science Cafe, launched in October 2011, takes place monthly during the fall and spring semesters and is free to the public. The event features a speaker who gives a short lecture on any topic in the science field, followed by a question-and-answer session.

The topic of pollution and its impact on the health of Mississippians and the state’s economy is one that needs to be examined and discussed by the community, said Marco Cavaglia, professor of physics and astronomy and Science Café organizer.

“I think it is very important for people to hear about science, especially science that we do here at the University of Mississippi,” Cavaglia said. “Students in particular may benefit from Science Café lectures to complement what they learn in classes. We discuss topics that are often not covered in class.”

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