From research at Rowan to the Ivy League

From research at Rowan to the Ivy League

From research at Rowan…to the Ivy League
Engineering’s David Calhoun to study at Columbia

“Figure it out.”

From his youth helping his dad tinker with ham radios to his years conducting research in Rowan’s College of Engineering, that phrase has sometimes haunted, sometimes daunted—but always challenged, always inspired—David Calhoun.

“Yeah, he was never the type to just give me the answers,” Calhoun says of his father, an electrical engineer and amateur radio operator who had his son working on projects before age 10. At Rowan, Calhoun got more of the same inspiration, he says, from faculty members, such as Professor Robert Krchnavek, who pushed and prodded him intellectually.

“In Rowan Engineering, it’s not about being spoon fed,” Calhoun, 21, of Beachwood, says with a grin. “Not at all.”

Clearly, Calhoun flourishes in that type of competitive, challenging atmosphere. A self-described independent thinker, he is graduating at the top of the class in the College of Engineering with his bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering.

Graduating summa cum laude, Calhoun is heading off to the doctoral program in electrical engineering at Columbia University. There, he’ll complete master’s and Ph.D. work in a scant five years. In his Rowan career, his lowest grades were two A-minuses, which, Associate Provost for Research Shreekanth Mandayam told Calhoun, “make him more human.”

“I’m a little young for a bucket list, but going to an Ivy League school is something I wanted to accomplish,” says Calhoun, who will study under Keren Bergman, chair of Columbia’s Electrical Engineering Department.

Calhoun’s research interests include electromagnetics (optics, computational analysis, transmission theory, material properties), radio frequency engineering, materials engineering and advanced communications. During his Rowan years, he developed a strong interest in engineering work affiliated with the military.

As a research assistant at the University of Delaware in a pilot program, one of his projects involved designing a structural composite radome (a dome-shaped device used to house a radar antenna) for the U.S. Navy’s Integrated Topside Program, which is developing electronic warfare, radar and communications systems for naval ships.

In his work with the Department of the Army as an intern in the BVTC (Battlefield Video Tele-Conference) Mobile Electronics Engineering program at Fort Monmouth, Calhoun created mobile communications solutions for extending audio and video peripherals, among other projects.

His burgeoning curriculum vitae, already at three pages of 10-point type, includes Rowan research projects ranging from Apple iOS hardware and software design for the iPhone, iPod, and iPad to infrared applications of novel microstructures to sensitivity analysis for the application of novel microstructures, which is his most recent independent research.

Graduate-level research
“I worked under what was sort of a thesis scenario,” says Calhoun of his work, which is similar to the graduate-level research he will pursue at Columbia. “I’ve been designing my own test suites, analyzing my own data, and getting my results to a ‘publishable’ state.”

The work is so strong, Krchnavek says, that it will be submitted to the Antenna Applications Symposium later this year in Monticello, Ill. That’s a “pretty good” accomplishment for an undergraduate, says Krchnavek, who is not prone to superlatives. Krchnavek’s tests usually have a mean score of 50. Calhoun prides himself in getting all As in his courses…so far.

“David is going to work extremely hard at Columbia,” says Krchnavek. “He’s going to have some very tough times over the next few years, but it will be exciting and rewarding for him. He’s hard working and very motivated. He’ll have one heck of an experience there.”

Calhoun says he had the same type of experience at Rowan.

“There’s definitely competition in the College of Engineering. It’s extremely healthy,” says Calhoun, who would like to work in industry or teach after his Columbia studies are complete. He has time, he says, to figure it out.

“The fact that I had very good teachers here makes me want to pay it forward. I’d like to give back.”

Penn-bound Ruby Cortes to focus on biology
Ruby Cortes is a bona-fide, true-blue, card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool science nerd.

“I lay awake at night thinking about my research,” the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School-bound Cortes says with ebullience. “I don’t know how everyone else isn’t in love with science. I talk about my research with everyone. There’s so much really exciting science going on.”

At Rowan, Cortes, 27, enthusiastically became part of an active scientific research community. The Brooklawn resident, who will graduate magna cum laude from Rowan with her biology degree, spent hours in the biology laboratory of Professor Dayalan Srinivasan, researching phenotypic plasticity. In layman’s terms, she researched how organisms respond to environmental change by producing different phenotypes.

Additionally, she worked with the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, where she cultured mammalian tissue and perfected her molecular biology techniques, including microsatellites, karyotyping and microarrays.

Cortes, who began her collegiate studies in Washington State and then took almost four years off because of financial reasons, returned to college with a fierce determination to earn her degree. Years of working as a pharmacy technician demonstrated to her that she needed to find the career she truly loved.

“I know how awful it is,” she says, “to have a job you absolutely hate.”

Persistence, patience
There’s nothing more satisfying, Cortes notes, than being in the biology lab, working on research that tries to identify which genes and proteins allow organisms to adapt to changing environments in their lifetime—or the next generation.

“Science takes persistence and patience. And you have to be OK with not getting things right the first time,” says Cortes. “I could be working on a little technical problem and, when I finally figure it out, it’s the best feeling.”

Cortes received a full ride to Penn’s doctoral program in biology, where, she says, there was a palpable sense of collegiality that matched the great opportunity she’ll have to work with stellar scientists. Her general area of research interest is molecular biology and signal transduction.

“When I went on my interview at Penn,” she says, “the professor looked at me and said, ‘Wow. You’re really a science nerd.’ I knew it was a compliment.”

Cortes, who worked 26 hours a week as a receptionist at Cooper University Hospital to pay for her Rowan tuition, has presented her research nationally, including at the Society for Developmental Biology Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference at Penn and at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology National Conference in Charleston, S.C.  

Cortes brought a natural curiosity, self-motivation and a team approach to her Rowan research, according to Srinivasan.

“She’s completely engaged in her research,” Srinivasan says. “And she knows how to create a really good community among her colleagues. That’s something you can’t teach.”

Triple major Michael Reca to pursue a single doctorate…in chemistry

In the beginning, it made sense. At the end, it really made sense.

But in the middle of his Rowan undergraduate career, pursuing three challenging majors and two concentrations was a little extreme even for someone as academically gifted and hard-working as Michael Reca.

“How did I do it? Magic, mostly,” quips Reca, who is graduating from Rowan with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, physics and mathematics.

“It was really hard. I had four to six hours of homework a night. Your social life suffers. There are a lot of sleepless nights.”

Reca’s dedication to his studies, however, has paid off handsomely. The Howell resident, who is graduating cum laude, will pursue his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.

Reca has received both a grant from the Fountaine Fellowship, which will fund his studies for his first year of graduate school, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which will fund another three years of graduate work. The funding includes a stipend of $30,000 a year.

He’ll study at Penn with Zahra Fakhraai, a professor in physical chemistry. Their research will focus on investigations in photon-particle dynamics.

Reca is certain that his three majors, combined with his dedication to pursuing research, helped him land his fellowships at Penn. In fact, he says, his physics and mathematics backgrounds were the reason he was offered a summer research position at Penn working in nanoparticles.

“Penn offered me that position because of my background in math and physics,” Reca says. “Having those majors in addition to my chemistry major has given me a distinct advantage.”

The triple majors happened by accident. Reca started his career “massively indecisive” on a major and then realized “it was feasible,” though not necessarily ideal, to carry all of the majors through.

Still, he says, “with the depth and breadth of the educational experiences I’ve received here, I feel very well prepared” for graduate school.
A cancer survivor—he underwent chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in high school and is now cancer free—Reca came to Rowan intent on a future as a cancer researcher. But he couldn’t kill a fruit fly. Literally.

“In Biology 2, we did a major lab project on fruit flies. At the end, you have to kill the flies. I felt bad about that. I realized that if I can’t deal with killing flies, how would I deal with conducting research on species with backbones?” Reca says.

Finding his niche
As part of the International Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, funded by the National Science Foundation, Reca went to Italy and Argentina during his undergraduate summers. There, he discovered quantum chemistry, a field that he says beautifully combines all of his interests.

“I love chemistry because, in a sense, it lets me be a little kid playing with LEGOs. I’m just dealing with atoms instead of plastic bricks.

“Physics—especially quantum mechanics—is fascinating to me completely in its own right and always has been,” he continues. “The rules of the quantum world are exactly what determine how my ‘LEGO blocks’ can fit together. And my advanced mathematical background gives me a really deep understanding of those rules.”

A research assistant for three years in the lab of Chemistry Professor Greg Caputo, Reca has presented his research locally and nationally, including at the American Chemical Society in 2010.  He thrived, he says, in the collaborative environment in Caputo’s lab, where Reca is famous for making “extremely bad science puns,” Caputo says.

“It’s a super friendly group,” says Reca, who also has concentrations in applied mathematics and philosophy and religion. “It’s very much a cooperative environment, as opposed to a competitive one. I like working in an environment where there’s a real sharing of thoughts.”

“He has the ability to excel in everything he touches,” Caputo says of Reca, who is graduating with 183 credits—some 60-plus more than the average undergraduate Rowan grad.

“Innately, he has an overwhelming love of science and he thinks very big. Some people think outside of the box. Mike thinks outside of the room.”