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Prepared to hit the ground running

It is uncommon to go from graduate school to a university teaching position without first working as a postdoctoral researcher or in industry.

Alexandra Coman, who joined the faculty of Ohio Northern University after earning a Ph.D. in computer science at Lehigh in 2013, gives much of the credit for her rapid rise to the Rossin Doctoral Fellowship program.

“This program was immensely beneficial for me,” says Coman, “and for anyone considering applying for a faculty position after their Ph.D.”

The fellowship is one of three Rossin programs that help students and faculty make transitions in their careers. Doctoral Fellowships are granted to two dozen Ph.D. candidates, Rossin Assistant Professorships are awarded to several new faculty members, and about 50 Rossin Junior Fellows are chosen from the ranks of Lehigh’s sophomore, junior and senior engineering students. The programs were made possible by a gift from the late Peter C. Rossin ’48.

Coman, who studies artificial intelligence and case-based reasoning, benefited from two courses taught to Rossin Doctoral Fellows by John Coulter, associate dean for graduate studies and research in the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

“There are some things I learned in those courses that I only fully appreciated once I myself began teaching,” says Coman. “Professors came to our classes to tell us about their teaching methods, and we were given the chance to present and be critiqued. That helped me transition from thinking as a student to thinking as a faculty member.”

The one-credit courses are called Teaching and Presentation Skills and Preparing for the Professoriate.

“When we developed these courses for doctoral students,” says Coulter, “we asked ourselves: ‘What do we wish we had known when we were Ph.D. students?’ The students in the courses get hands-on teaching and presentation experience. We teach them how to prepare for lectures and classes, the positive and negative aspects of an academic career, and how to apply for an academic job, which is not a typical job search of the kind you see for positions in industry.”

The Doctoral Fellowships program offers added advantages for international students.

“Some things in the American academic system were completely new to me; how it works, how the teaching process differs, what students expect,” says Coman, who holds a B.S. from Romanian-American University in Bucharest.

Aykut Bulut, a Rossin Doctoral Fellow from Turkey, is helping new graduate students apply to Lehigh and get acclimated once they arrive.

“We help them apply to Lehigh from abroad,” says Bulut, an industrial engineering major who studies discrete optimization. “We also work with people from other countries once they arrive. In addition, the fellowship funded the last conference I went to.”

The 2014 Rossin Assistant Professors — Bryan Berger in chemical and biomolecular engineering, Yevgeny Berdichevsky of electrical and computer engineering and Arindam Banerjee in mechanical engineering and mechanics—say the program helps students get professional recognition.

“One thing that’s very beneficial is that we can use the support to take students to national meetings,” says Berger, whose research focuses on quantum dots, membrane biology and biocompatible surfactants.

“This year, I’m taking two students, one graduate and one undergraduate, to the American Chemical Society meeting. They are presenting, and their visibility at these conferences is really helpful for them to compete with students at other top institutions.”

Banerjee works in fluid dynamics, with applications in wave energy and inertial confinement fusion capsules. He is collaborating with scientists at the national laboratories in Livermore and Los Alamos.

“The Rossin Fellowship is an internal grant,” he notes. “That’s important because you can’t pay for foreign travel with a federal grant. As a result, I can take a graduate student to France this summer for the European Wave Energy conference.”

The Rossin funding also allows professors to place bets on promising research that might not pan out.

“It’s so hard to get funding for any project,” says Berger, “especially if you don’t have preliminary data and support for an idea. This funding gives me the opportunity to hire a student for a semester and see what happens. That’s key to finding new directions that can lead to major funding from NIH or NSF.”

Rossin Junior Fellows devote themselves to mentorship and service. They have run projects at neighboring Broughal Middle School and at Lehigh’s annual CHOICES events for middle school girls.

“The Rossin Junior Fellows program,” says chemical engineering major Nicolette Drescher ‘15, “is about giving back.”

Junior Fellows also help freshmen navigate registration. “Many of us are here during orientation week,” says mechanical engineering major Lauren Walker ‘15. “We assist them with adding and dropping classes, set up PINs, whatever they need.”

Olivia Yang, a chemical engineering senior, remembers the guidance she received from Junior Fellows her first week at Lehigh. “I was floundering when I first got here. I had to change schedules, and do a lot of things that I had no idea about. The Junior Fellows shepherded me through that time.”

Yang is now a Junior Fellow herself. “We’ve been through it all,” she says, “so who better to help?”

Story by Chris Quirk