A Grand Expedition for Science of the Small
By Andrew Molchany, JMU Public Affairs
Brian Augustine is known as Dr. Augustine to some, Daddy to others and will soon add Fulbright Scholar to his list of favorite titles.
An associate professor of chemistry at JMU, Augustine will be heading to South Africa in January to teach and research nanotechnology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Augustine will combine lectures and laboratory experiments from a class he helped pioneer at JMU called "The Science of the Small: An Introduction to Nanotechnology." The work will involve scanning probe microscopy to study self-assembled molecules that could have potential applications as a molecular data storage media.
Augustine was contemplating taking a sabbatical when he discovered South Africa had a growing interest for advanced nanotechnology research at the undergraduate level. Realizing the Fulbright Scholarship, a program run by the State Department, would satisfy all his professional and personal interests—including continuing research in microfluidics, exploring the role of science in developing countries and enabling his children to experience a culture quite different from their own—Augustine immediately began working on his proposal.
"I knew I had a good chance once I made it past the first round of the application process," said Augustine, who was notified about receiving the scholarship in March. Having already worked extensively in the lab with students at JMU, Augustine reveled in the opportunity to take his research abroad and into a young science community eager to learn about nanotechnology.
Augustine's nanotechnology research is highly advanced for undergraduate universities in the United States and will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the students and scientists in South Africa, he said. He will work with Professor Orde Munroe, an inorganic chemist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. Munroe’s work includes research in molecular synthesis. Together, they will prepare a new laboratory and create experiments for the students, most of whom have never performed any studies or research involving nanotechnology, Augustine said.
The trip will no doubt involve some challenges, including one before he ever leaves the United States. In addition to moving his family to South Africa, Augustine faces a daunting task of transporting expensive and highly specialized scientific equipment. An atomic force microscope and a nanomanipulator, two instruments designed to allow scientists to see and work on the nanometer scale, will be making the trip too. Properly securing the instruments is a major concern considering both pieces will be new additions to the lab in Pietermaritzburg.
As for his time in South Africa, Augustine said, "I don't really know what to expect. These experiences are kind of life changing. I'm probably going to have a much better appreciation for how good we have it here in the U.S. and how good we have it at JMU."
Augustine’s appreciation of JMU has grown in the 10 years he has taught here. After receiving his doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and working for several years in the neighboring Research Triangle Park, Augustine sought a career change that would provide a more fulfilling life for the passionate chemist, materials scientist, husband and father.
"I felt like teaching was my calling," said Augustine.
After deciding to look for a position in a chemistry department at an undergraduate university in the mid-Atlantic region, Augustine came across a small ad for a teaching job at JMU. "I read it to my wife and I said, 'This is me," he said. With a degree in materials science and extensive research experience in physics, the position, including work in the newly developed Center for Materials Science, felt like a custom-made job.
"JMU was completely ahead of the curve, as far as undergraduate schools are concerned," said Augustine. The interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology along with JMU's innovative approach allowing students from a variety of academic concentrations to work in unison in the laboratory sealed the deal. "That's unique, especially for undergraduate research, to force people out of their comfort zones and to make them realize that if you go to work for a company or if you go into graduate school, there are going to be people from all different disciplines thrown together solving problems that are at the interface of two or more of those fields," said Augustine.
Augustine’s latest step out of the comfort zone will take him half a world away for six months. He will return to JMU for the fall 2009 semester.
Published July 2008