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GAANN program enables MAE graduate students to pay it forward

Baylor University mechanical engineering faculty member and MU Engineering alumnus David Jack meets with two of his undergraduate researchers before a poster competition they were part of last spring. Jack says the GAANN program allowed him to attend conferences while still in graduate school. Photo provided by David Jack

In response to the national need for a workforce with the ability to compete in a global, high-tech economy, the University of Missouri College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering applied for and received a series of grants from the U.S. Department of Education to fund the Mechanical Engineering Graduate Scholar’s Program. Over the course of nine years, the program resulted in  $1.69 million in financial support for more than a dozen graduate students.

MAE Professor Doug Smith, who served as lead for the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) program, said the funding was intended to strengthen the number of U.S. citizens who received doctorate degrees. The ultimate goal is to provide them with the background and opportunities to continue on as faculty researchers in higher education.

“The GAANN program nurtures MAE graduate students who are not only engaged in performing cutting-edge research with eminent faculty members, but also involves them in teaching undergraduate courses to pave a seamless track between classrooms and research labs,” said Department Chairman Bob Tzou.

In addition to paying for tuition, books and fees, GAANN fellows receive funds to travel to conferences, Smith said. “It’s a pretty good deal for students, and it also helps us because we are able to support more graduate students in our research programs,” Smith added.

David Jack, who worked as a graduate research assistant in Smith’s lab, earned his master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 2003, a master’s in applied mathematics in 2006 and his doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 2006, all from Mizzou. He received bachelor’s degrees in both engineering physics and mechanical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines (CSM), before following Smith to MU to do his graduate work.

“I met Dr. Smith during my senior year at CSM and began working on my master’s degree with him. During my first semester of graduate studies he received a position at MU. My wife and I talked it over and decided to move to Missouri and continue working with one of the wisest and kindest advisers I have known,” Jack said.

Their collaboration at Mizzou resulted in five journal papers, nine conference publications plus five additional journal papers and several conference papers since Jack became a faculty member.

“Dr. Smith had me develop professionally by traveling a lot. I attended lots of conferences,” Jack said. “The GAANN fellowship also allowed him to bring an additional student into the lab, giving him more time to work with each of us students and work on other things.”

David Jack, left, followed Doug Smith, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, from the Colorado School of Mines to Mizzou. Photo provided by David Jack

“Your opportunities are unlimited with engineering,” Jack said, adding that industry jobs definitely pay more in the engineering field. Those who choose careers in academia must really want to work with students and have a passion to teach.

“In academia, you never walk out of the building with an empty bag,” he said.

After graduating, Jack was offered a faculty position at Florida State University. In 2009, he accepted a position at Baylor University, a private college in Texas.

In addition to his time at the front of the classroom, the young faculty/researcher presides over a vibrant research program where he and his research assistants — currently at three undergrads and six graduate students — are looking at materials and mechanics for, among other systems, aerospace composites and predicting when and why these carbon fiber structures fail. They also are developing an ultrasonic 3D non-destructive testing system for in-situ failure predictions.

“My students are brilliant. I can’t set the bar high enough to keep them all happy,” Jack said. “Next year, I anticipate that we’ll kick off our Ph.D. program here at Baylor. One of the driving reasons I came here was that I wanted to help create and launch that program.”