Professors Show How to Pair Excellent Research and Teaching

Can great research scientists also be great teachers? Two professors in the University of Virginia Department of Materials Science and Engineering are showing how it can be done – with excellence.

Associate Professor Petra Reinke and Charles Henderson Chaired Professor John R. Scully are working together on a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. Scully, who has studied many aspects of corrosion for several decades, and Reinke, who specializes in the observation of materials science at surfaces including research in alloy oxidation, collaborate with a multi-university group of scientists led by Prof. L. Marks of Northwestern University.

The focus of their research is to understand the early stages of corrosion of selected materials at the atomic scale, and to apply this knowledge to design new materials with improved performance. Since corrosion (or the degradation of materials due to electrochemical reactions with the environment) has a detrimental impact on the performance of nearly all fabricated structures, it accrues a significant annual cost to the United States’ gross domestic product, and creates a barrier to the achievement of many urgent societal goals, such as supplying sufficient clean water and energy to meet global needs. Scully’s and Reinke’s research will have a potentially far-reaching impact.

Their skill in teaching also has broad impact, since they develop and nurture the scientists and researchers of the next generation.

Scully is the 2016 winner of the Electrochemical Society’s Henry B. Linford Award for Distinguished Teaching, an international distinction from a society that has more than 8,000 members in 70 countries.

Both Scully and Reinke have a passion for teaching, and their students thrive. 

Katie Goodrich, a third-year student  in Reinke’s Nanoscale Science and Technology course, said, “Professor Reinke is one of the best teachers I have encountered at the University of Virginia. Her lectures are presented like a story aided by visuals that she draws herself to simplify ideas. Her focus is not on inundating students’ brains with material in the hope that something will stick, but on forming a layered understanding of the topics… I leave professor Reinke’s lectures exhilarated about the material and excited to learn more.”

One of Reinke’s graduate students offered a similar observation. “The amount of time and effort she puts in for students amazes me,” said Gopal Ramalingam, a Ph.D. candidate. “An excellent example is what she refers to as the ‘teaching moments’ when she explains a difficult concept; she starts from the fundamentals and constructs the concept from the bottom up, ensuring that you have a proper understanding.”

About balancing teaching and research, Reinke said, “I don’t see teaching as a separate entity. The two inform each other. With my graduate students, I am telling a story about how to tease out a result. In a classroom, I want my students to understand the logical connections between the different parts of science. It is a thrill to have a student ask a good question, a question that prompts other students to think.”

On October 1, 2015, the article “Strain Lattice Imprinting in Graphene by C60 Intercalation at the Graphene/Cu Interface” was published in the prestigious nanoscience journal, NanoLetters, written by Reinke and her group.

Scully considers it one of his primary missions to produce high-quality graduates in applied electrochemistry and electrochemical aspects of materials science – graduates who can become future leaders in the field. A father of three daughters, including one who is a first-year student in the School of Engineering, Scully has focused on the recruitment and success of women and individuals from other demographic groups underrepresented in engineering.

A basis for his Linford Award is his extraordinary graduation rate during his years at UVA: 27 Ph.D. and 36 master’s degree graduates. Leslie Bland, one of Scully’s Ph.D. candidates, said, “John Scully is a great teacher because he cares about his students. I have seen him grade tests, and he takes it to heart if his student does not do well…He is a great adviser for much of this same reason. He really wants to see his students succeed and cares about us each as individuals.”

Regarding his teaching style, Scully said, “I take as a challenge trying to be a good classroom teacher by telling a funny or dramatic story about an event involving materials science that convinces people the field is important to society.”

He encourages his students to present at conferences and prepares them so well for such events that most of them win awards. The Electrochemical Society has recently ranked the current group of 32 students from the Center for Electrochemical Science and Engineering, where Scully is a co-director, as the No. 1 group in the United States.

In preparing students to present their work, Scully said, “You create an environment where the students can flourish. Trial by fire gives them a better ability to do this work in the field and present their findings in difficult situations, such as depositions.” In the process, his students have met many of the leaders in the field of electrochemistry and have gone on to work in industry, government laboratories, and as faculty members at universities around the world.

Of classroom teaching, Scully said, “I’ve learned first of all never to put a student on the spot, or to humiliate a student. You don’t want to lose people by putting up stumbling blocks. You want them to be life-long learners.”

When Scully first joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 1990, his mentor was Professor Emeritus Glenn Stoner, who founded the Center for Electrochemical Science and Engineering in 1974. Scully has never forgotten something Stoner once said to him: “Don’t worry about promotions or about being a world-class scientist. The success of your students is your reward.”