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Reflecting on their time as undergraduate students, three University of Arizona Regents' Professors say that collaborative work is underrated, humanities and history courses are indeed valuable, and mistakes can be a great teacher.
That’s just some of the wisdom imparted by Diana Liverman, Regents' Professor of Geography and Development and co-director of the UA Institute of the Environment, who is currently on sabbatical; Toni Massaro, Dean Emerita of the UA James E. Rogers College of Law; and Pierre Meystre, a Regents' Professor of Physics and Optical Sciences and director of the UA Biosphere 2 Institute. UA alumni also talk about their experiences and share advice in "Career After College: Alumni Share Tips for New Students."
Q: What tips would you share with today's students to help them succeed in the academic environment?
Liverman (left): Try to turn up to most of your classes and spend some of the time listening to what's being said instead of taking notes on your computer or checking social media. In smaller classes, ask questions, and never begin your comment with “This is probably a stupid question but ...” Remember, there really are no stupid questions! Go to exam study sessions and form study groups.
Massaro (right): Make your academic ends the first priority. A lot of things are available in college that are exciting and important to the experience: making new friends, exploring autonomy, balancing school and social life. But the classroom and academic work should be your first priorities in order to make the most of the opportunity to grow intellectually.
Meystre: Embrace your ignorance. Learn to be comfortable with not knowing the answer, but then don't stop until you have it figured out. Don't be afraid to ask questions, even simple questions. Questions that may seem simple can lead to profound answers. And chances are that others don't know, either, and will be happy that somebody asks — or they will know the answer, and then they'll be able to help you. Also, be open to unexpected opportunities and challenges.
Q: What do you wish you had known when you were a freshman?
Liverman: That so many opportunities would open up for me as an environmentalist and woman during my lifetime. When I was a freshman, there were no “green” careers, and it was tough for a woman to succeed in the environmental arena. Second, that working in a group — rather than competing — can help you be a success. And third, that I didn't have to find a husband my first year at college (that's what my grandmother thought I should be focusing on). It is much more fun to look around, travel the world and find someone later.
Meystre (left): That one should not be afraid to make mistakes. Being overly cautious can be paralyzing, and one often learns more from failures than from success. And for a curious mind, what can possibly be more boring and uninteresting than having things run just as expected?
Q: What would you have done differently?
Liverman: I would do study abroad. I would do internships and/or volunteer for local environmental or other organizations. I would take more science.
Meystre: I don’t think much about that. I don't find it particularly useful to obsess about "missed opportunities." We have just one ride and may as well enjoy it.
Q: What turned out to be your best move?
Liverman: Helping a visiting professor with her research one summer. She then invited me to take a master’s degree with her in Canada.
Massaro: Taking Bergen Evans' world literature course. A Northwestern classic, and the best course I took in college. And then choosing law school for my graduate work.
Meystre: Picking a great field of study. Physics is extraordinarily beautiful and exciting. It challenges you at every turn and always hits you with new surprises, with profound questions ranging from the origin of the universe to the nature of reality, and with practical applications that can have a significant societal impact.
Q: What was your most career-determining stroke of luck or serendipitous event?
Liverman: Getting an internship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and persuading climate scientist Stephen Schneider to supervise me. He set me on my path to becoming a researcher, mentored me for many subsequent opportunities.
Massaro: A conversation with an undergraduate professor my senior year of college telling me "You ought to go to law school," even though she had been steering me to her own graduate/Ph.D. program the previous three years. Her shift helped me take the big leap professionally (and personally). And then, at the end of law school, two professors encouraged me to apply for a law-teaching job after my time in practice. I was extremely fortunate to have teachers who took such a keen interest in all of their students.
Meystre: There are too many to count. Most lucky perhaps was picking a specialization that was not very fashionable at the time but that turned out to become very hot, and also being at the right place at the right time.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
Liverman: You will make the most amazing friends in college who will see you through all the ups and downs of life. Look for ways to meet new people, not always like you, and it will change your life.
Massaro: Make the most of this moment, knock on your teachers' doors and enjoy your classmates. They can be your best teachers, too. Raise your hand. Be curious. Then "pay it forward" by helping others with their studies or volunteering in the community. There is no better way to learn than to teach others.
Meystre: Don't forget to have fun. If you don't, maybe you are not doing what you should be doing.
Diana Liverman's expertise and research interests focus on the human dimensions of environmental change, connecting earth and social sciences to understand challenges of drought and climate change, climate policy, climate change communication, food security, land use and international environmental governance. Liverman has advised a wide range of government committees, non-governmental organizations and businesses on climate issues. The first woman to serve in the position, Toni Massaro is also one of the longest-serving UA deans in recent history. Massaro, who holds the Milton O. Riepe Chair in Constitutional Law, has been with the college since 1989 and is an expert in civil procedure and constitutional law. And originally from Switzerland, Pierre Meystre, who joined the UA in 1986, has developed theory that has profoundly influenced all aspects of quantum optics, according to Nobel Prize winners in that field. He was named Regents' Professor in 2002.
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The students are members of the UA Microgravity Research Team, which is one of 18 U.S. undergraduate teams chosen to participate in NASA's 2014 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. Acrobatics aside, their mission is to explore the effects of weightlessness on organic polymer synthesis.
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The highlight of the week will be a flight on NASA's Low-G Flight Research aircraft. This plane – called G-Force One – flies researchers and their experiments through a series of parabolic flight patterns in a weightless environment, topping out at 34,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico.
After descending from the apex of a parabola, leveling out and beginning another ascent, humans and their gear are pinned to the floor by double the gravitational force humans experience on the Earth's surface. As the plane pushes over the top of the parabola, weightlessness takes over – the technical term is microgravity – and it's research time.
Microgravity aboard G-Force One lasts about 25 seconds, which calls for very efficient experimentation.
"All we have to do is flip a switch," said aerospace engineering student Ruben Adkins, founder of the Microgravity Research Team. The switch activates a heat gun aimed at test tubes full of organic liquid whose molecules have a structure based on chains of six carbon atoms. Gasoline molecules, by comparison, have chains of eight carbon atoms. The heat initiates the polymerization process and turns the liquid six-carbon monomers into a solid foam polymer made up of carbon chains thousands of atoms long.
The UA team's experiments are expected to address as yet unanswered questions. For example, is tensile strength improved in polymers that are fabricated in microgravity? What happens to density? Thermal resistance? Impact strength? The team has already conducted experiments on Earth to determine the properties of the foam polymer created at normal gravity. When the students return, they will conduct the same experiments on the foam created under microgravity aboard G-Force One and compare results to see how different gravities affect the polymer's properties.
"We're working in an area that hasn't been quantified before," Adkins said.
The plane is expected to fly as many as 35 parabolas, and the UA team had 26 tests planned.
When they're not working, they'll enjoy a G-Force One tradition: weightless playtime.
The gleeful somersaults, back flips and walks across the ceiling of the cabin last for only a few seconds. Then it's back to the padded floor for another descent and ascent.
The steep ascents and descents – with weightless interludes – can wreak havoc on the digestive system. Hence the plane's nickname: the Vomit Comet. All passenger flight suits have an airsickness bag tucked into the breast pocket. Unlucky users get belted into a seat for the remainder of the flight.
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