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Jack Diab is an intern with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

SOU undergrad reaches for the stars with summer research at NASA

Think SOU senior-to-be Jack Diab was excited when his application was accepted for an internship this summer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena? “I was over the moon (pun intended),” said the chemistry major from Ashland.

Diab – who has a longstanding interest in all things NASA – filled out the JPL application along with several from other agencies and organizations. He got the one he wanted, and will spend the summer working in the JPL’s Planetary Interiors and Geophysics Division, focused on icy ocean worlds such as Ceres, Enceladus and Europa.

“It was really exciting to see that my hard work was recognized by JPL and that I could help out with real NASA research,” said Diab, whose internship is intended to help understand the makeup of a subsurface ocean on Ceres, a dwarf planet and largest object in the asteroid belt.

“I will also be working on many side projects related to ocean worlds and their chemistry,” he said. “My work will involve a lot of thermodynamic modeling and other computational work.”

Diab’s focus at SOU has been on organic chemistry, and he served as a mentor over the past year to help teach the subject. He learned about thermodynamics in his physical chemistry courses, and how to use the computer programing language Python to model various problems.

“These classes – and the thorough and excellent teaching of these subjects by my professors – has really prepared me for this internship,” Diab said.

The admiration is mutual, according to Greg Smith, an assistant professor of physical chemistry at SOU and a key faculty member and advisor for Diab. Smith taught some of the general chemistry courses that Diab took as a freshman, and the “Computational Methods for Scientists” course where Diab learned Python and the basics of computer modeling.

“Jack brings an inquisitiveness and tenacity to his work in the classroom and the laboratory,” Smith said. “He loves to explore the connections between the theoretical and the practical aspects of science. He did great work all year and I’m looking forward to working with him on his capstone research next year.”

Diab said it was the smallness of the university and opportunities to do meaningful research as an undergraduate – including hands-on work with Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) equipment – that attracted him to SOU and the Chemistry Department. Smith said that’s all by design – the department has a two-year capstone sequence that includes a total of six scientific presentations and a comprehensive research project in the program’s second year.

It’s an academic atmosphere that encourages real-world learning and research, and high achievement.

Chemistry Department Chair Hala Schepmann said there are close to a dozen undergrads and recent graduates from SOU’s STEM Division who are currently on prestigious research assignments. For instance, junior biochemistry major Maya Helms – another organic chemistry mentor – is continuing her ongoing research this summer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. And an alumna of SOU’s STEM Division recently graduated from medical school at the Oregon Health and Science University and was accepted into a seven-year surgical residency at Stanford University.

SOU’s Chemistry Department is expanding its undergraduate research opportunities this summer with the ChemREx Fellowship Program, in which professor Anna Oliveri is mentoring two students in their research projects. The new program was made possible by generous donations from the McIntyre and Hatton families.

“It is always tough to participate in research as an undergrad, but the Chemistry Department has a really nice system of setting all of us up with a research mentor for our capstone so that we can do real research,” Diab said.

He is on track to graduate next summer, and is eying graduate programs in chemistry, computational chemistry and related fields. Diab’s experiences this summer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will likely broaden the options for the next phase of his academic journey.

“Graduate school for chemistry relies heavily on research, making any experience I can get now very valuable,” he said. “Not only will this internship give me excellent research experience, but I will expand my horizons on the applications of chemistry, make connections to JPL scientists in fields I am interested in, and learn new techniques and skills that will help me in future research.”

Smith, his capstone advisor, expects Diab to work from his solid research foundation to build a successful academic experience and a career in science.

“Jack has the natural curiosity and work ethic to succeed in many scientific fields,” Smith said.

“He’s gaining invaluable experience in this internship and I’m sure he’ll have many options available after graduation. Whatever path he ultimately decides on, I think he’ll do great work.”