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DYNAMIC DUOS

These six Georgia Tech faculty-student pairs not only represent the best the Institute has to offer,
but also illustrate how outstanding teachers and pupils can inspire each other to virtually limitless heights.

Summer 2017 | by Roger Slavens 

 

Great teachers don’t merely impart knowledge, they kindle imaginations, inspire confidence and instill the desire to learn more. Meanwhile, the best and brightest students don’t simply earn passing grades, they ask tough questions and challenge their own preconceptions as they gain understanding and experience.

At Georgia Tech, you’ll find countless examples of world-class faculty and their star pupils who fit these descriptions to a “T”. But the ones who truly stand out are those helping to redefine the traditional teacher-student relationship. They’re working together on undergraduate research projects, collaborating on papers and presentations, even testing and perfecting new models of learning.

On the following pages, you’ll meet six Tech faculty members—each nominated by their colleges for their incredible impact as teachers—who in turn each singled out one of their extraordinary students to showcase. And you’ll quickly realize another trait of great teachers and students—how proud they are of each other and their accomplishments.

ROCKET SCIENTISTS

Mitchell Walker, Professor of Aerospace Engineering
Jason Frieman, AE 12, MS AE 14, PhD AE 17
College of Engineering


For almost a decade, Professor Mitchell Walker and student Jason Frieman have been doing nothing less than working to put the first human beings on Mars.

Walker oversees Tech’s High-Power Electric Propulsion Laboratory, where he and his student research team study how to use electricity—rather than chemical fuel—to send rockets into and through space. “With electricity you can achieve exhaust velocities which are much higher than you can get with chemicals,” Walker says. “That means you can make a spacecraft go farther or stay in orbit longer using less fuel while also being much cheaper to operate. I think electric propulsion is the future of space travel, and will drive much of what we will see and do in space over the next 20 to 30 years.”

While Walker’s research has garnered a lot of attention and international awards, at his core he realizes his most important work is molding the next generation of aerospace engineers and scientists, like Frieman. Walker teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses on topics such as thermodynamics and compressible flow, low-speed aerodynamics, and—somewhat surprisingly—technical writing. (Walker strongly believes that future scientists need training in how to present their ideas efficiently and effectively.)

“I first met Jason when he was a sophomore in that Thermodynamics and Compressible Flow class,” Walker says. “He was stellar—top of his class, very bright, always energetic, always engaged and interested in doing his own research outside of class.”

Walker soon invited Frieman to join his lab team, which was mostly made up of grad students. “Jason immediately connected with them, and he wasn’t afraid to take on the hard projects and get them done with only a limited amount of guidance,” Walker says. “I knew he was going to have a great future ahead of him—I just needed to make sure I put him in the right environment and provided him with the right training.”

Under Walker’s wing, Frieman flourished at Tech and stayed on after earning his bachelor’s degree to earn both his master’s and, very recently, his doctorate in aerospace engineering. He just accepted a position to work at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, where he will be focusing on testing propulsion systems and rockets on the ground before they’re ready for prime-time testing in space.

“I hope to be part of a NASA team that mirrors what was done with the Apollo program, but instead of going to the moon we go to Mars,” Frieman says.

Frieman has come a long way in his 10 years studying at Tech. “I remember taking that first class with Dr. Walker as an undergrad, one that most of us thought of as a weed-out class, and I thought I wasn’t going to cut it,” he says. “I did fine—but I realized how much more I still had to learn. Dr. Walker then took me into his lab and opened me up to a whole new way of learning, hands-on, in a place where I could contribute to real scientific progress.”

Of his professor, Frieman says that they were a “very good yin and yang to each other.” Frieman would focus on the detailed tests and tasks in front of him, while Walker would show him the bigger picture, the birds-eye view of why they were doing the research. “Dr. Walker sees everything—how all the pieces are linked together and how we can push this field forward with our research,” Frieman says.

Walker says his focus as a teacher and researcher isn’t about checking off his own personal goals and responsibilities. “The pipeline for the work we’re doing now is a very long one,” he says. “Today’s students are tomorrow’s scientists and engineers who are going to take the work to completion. What I’m focused on is teaching them the fundamentals so they can rise to the next level.”

Perhaps even more critical is teaching students how to handle failure. “In a lab like mine, there are more failures than successes,” Walker says. “These students, if they move forward in the field, are going to have hundreds if not thousands of failures. It’s my job to teach them how to handle these failures and push through until they find success.”

Frieman says Walker has given him countless opportunities for growth during his time at Tech. “I wouldn’t have earned my PhD or be going to work at NASA Glenn without him.”

ALGORITHM ACES

Dana Randall, Advance Professor of Computing and Co-Executive Director of the Institute for Data Engineering and Science
Sarah Cannon, PhD student in Algorithms, Combinatorics and Optimization
College of Computing

Algorithms rule Dana Randall’s professional life, but not in the way that many people might expect. Instead of dealing with the nuts-and-bolts of traditional data mining and analytics, she instead looks beyond the tactics to tackle more theoretical issues. “My work and research involves the background, foundational science behind developing algorithms and using data,” Randall says. “It’s often about being able to ask the right questions and making sure we’re collecting the right data.”

As an example, she posits that efforts to optimize a given outcome—like a business decision—may involve a tremendous amount of data. “It might be prohibitively slow to collect, sort and analyze all that data,” she says. “But there might be an approximation to that process—a shortcut of some sort—that could get you close enough to what you’re attempting to do that would be many-fold more efficient. And in this case it could make sense to relax your parameters and not look at every granular bit of data to arrive at your conclusion.”

That’s a lot to digest, but she’s not alone. In fact, in doctorate student Sarah Cannon, Randall has found a kindred spirit and fellow theoretical computer science geek. After earning her bachelor’s degree at Tufts and master’s degree at the University of Oxford, Cannon came to Tech specifically to study in the Institute’s Algorithms, Combinatorics and Optimization program.

Cannon works with Randall on a number of research projects.  

“Right now we’re collaborating with some physicists to help them build robotics systems that change shape in a coordinated fashion to achieve a greater, global behavior,” Cannon says. “Using tools from theoretical computer science, we can help them model or predict the behavior of the entire system and understand what will emerge.”

Cannon also serves as a teaching assistant for Honors Discrete Math, a freshman course. “It’s great to see these new students getting really excited about a topic that most people don’t get excited about,” she says.

Her goal is to stay in academia for her career, and she’s watched Randall closely to pick up on her teaching and research leadership techniques. “I want to excel as a teacher,” Cannon says. “The way Dana teaches, interacting with students and getting them engaged and excited about the material, is what I hope to learn to do. ”

Last summer, Randall says Cannon took her teaching to a higher level. “We had a very strong undergraduate student and Sarah took it upon herself to mentor her and train her,” Randall says. “We just submitted a joint paper and because of Sarah’s influence, this student got her first taste of being a published academic herself.”

Randall’s praise doesn’t stop there. “Basically, I dream up things to do and Sarah does it all,” she says. “I hit the jackpot—she’s just fearless about research. She’s already earned some of the most prestigious awards in the theoretical computer science field, as well as some for her efforts to promote women in computing, something that’s very important to me.”

Randall serves as the ADVANCE Professor of Computing, and as part of the ADVANCE program, she helps sustain a network of top faculty members at Tech who support the advancement of women and minorities in higher education. “There’s one ADVANCE professor in every college,” Randall says. “It’s really a privilege to get to work with and learn from this group of women, especially when we’re able to turn ideas into policies that will attract more women to campus.”

Already loaded with a full plate as a teacher and researcher, Randall was named the co-executive director of Tech’s Institute for Data Engineering and Science last year. In this role, she’s helping to harness all the data expertise that resides on campus. “It’s a huge advantage for us in that we’re able to put all the pieces together from different areas—our resources and people are really coming together,” she says.

AGENTS OF CHAOS

Flavio Fenton, Associate Professor of Physics, Petit Institute for Bioengineering
and Bioscience Researchers, and Director of the CHAOS Lab
Tim Farmer, Phys 17
College of Sciences

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Flavio Fenton’s CHAOS (Complex Heart Arrhythmias and other Oscillating Systems) Lab is a bit, well, chaotic and messy. After all, Fenton encourages his graduate and undergraduate researchers to undertake any little physics project they desire, even on a whim, even if it’s a tangent.

“One of the things I try do to is allow anyone to touch, learn and do whatever they want in the lab,” says Fenton, who has been a faculty member at Tech since 2012. “Even if a project will likely never turn into a paper or something academically important, we’re here to learn, we’re here to learn how to learn, and we’re hopefully having fun while we’re doing it.”

Fenton’s approach has earned him awards for teaching at Tech, as well as the respect and love of his students. One of them, recent alumnus Tim Farmer, Phys 17, thrived in the CHAOS lab even though he doesn’t, on first glance, seem like he belongs there.

After a turbulent childhood, and what Farmer describes as a rebellious period as a teenager, he couldn’t do much with the 1.6 grade point average he earned in high school—certainly not get into his dream school of Georgia Tech. So Farmer joined the Navy, and there found the focus and discipline to aim higher, no matter the odds.

“I wanted to do something good with my life, something that would have an impact,” Farmer says.

So he enrolled in engineering at Middle Georgia State University in Macon and immediately excelled. After the urging of his professors to apply for a transfer to Tech, he got in and soon found himself working in Fenton’s CHAOS lab, thanks to PhD student Connor Herndon’s keen eye for talent and commitment.

Farmer has been instrumental in the CHAOS lab’s work studying the physics and math of zebrafish hearts— which are tiny yet share some properties similar to human hearts—and seeing how what they learn about them could be applied to understanding arrhythmias in larger animals, such as humans. For one, Farmer built a lens system for the lab’s camera that helped them view and record the activity of the itty-bitty hearts better.

“We wanted a $20,000 microscope for the work, but Tim was able to piece together a solution for what cost us around $400,” Fenton says. “He just has a special way of identifying a problem or project and then working diligently at it until he solves it.”

Fenton has urged his prized pupil also to participate in writing papers and making presentations about their findings. In fact, Farmer presented at the annual, national American Physical Society (APS) conference this spring. His work in the classroom, in the lab and with peers from other institutions resulted in numerous offers from other universities to join them as a doctoral student, and he accepted a spot at the University of Southern California, where he’ll start this fall with a focus on high energy, particle physics and gravity.

“Tim has been working really, really hard for a long time—it’s almost like I had another grad student in the lab,” Fenton says. “He definitely has earned this opportunity.”

Fenton has a stellar track record of his students winning awards, getting published, attending conferences, making presentations and generally going on to do big things after they graduate from Tech. “When I was in school, my advisor was not too much into that,” Fenton says. “I had no idea there were so many opportunities for students—in fact, the only conference I ever went to as a grad student I paid for myself. So I make sure that my students know what’s available to them, and I push them to take advantage of all of it.”

His recently graduated student certainly appreciates Fenton’s guidance and support. “He’s very enthusiastic about his work, and he generates such a positive atmosphere in the lab,” Farmer says. “It’s something I respect deeply and hope to emulate later in my own career.”

OPS EXPERTS

Morvarid Rahmani, Assistant Professor of Operations Management
Hannah Lee, MBA 17

Scheller College of Business

A couple years ago, Morvarid Rahmani was faced with a new directive: Redesign her MBA Operations Management course—one of several core offerings that all MBA students must take—so that she could deliver it in just seven weeks instead of the full 15 weeks (a full semester) she had previously. Some professors might have simply figured out ways to cut down the content to fit in the new period. However, Rahmani instead took the challenge as an opportunity to rethink the entire class and make it even better.

The point of the core classes is to expose MBA students to a wide variety of business topics—to see how they all interconnect—before the students dive into their specific fields of focus. “It was still important to give students a basic overview of operations management, but I had to be more efficient in what content I presented to them and how I presented it,” Rahmani says. “The key was to optimize participation and engagement while having less time for it.”

Rahmani started her new course design by building it on an interactive teaching platform called ForClass, which helped her organize readings, case studies, news stories and multimedia materials so her students could digest them before class. “And when they come into class, the platform lets me know who had read the assignments and how they answered the questions,” she says.

She also set up frequent quizzes and check-ins to gauge how her students were learning, while providing ample opportunities for them to give her feedback on her teaching and what she could do better. “Because it’s mandatory for everyone, and some may feel it is out of their area of interest, I worked hard to keep them engaged in the classroom,” Rahmani says.

Recent graduate Hannah Lee, MBA 17, was in the first cohort of the redesigned classes—all the core MBA courses were scaled down to seven weeks—and she says that Rahmani’s stood out against the rest. “The new curriculum was very fast paced, but her course was structured in a way that really engaged us and encouraged us to learn about operations management, whether that was our focus or not,” Lee says. “Professor Rahmani also made herself extremely accessible, not only during class but afterwards.

Even more important, she took frequent assessments of the class and was truly interested and invested in student feedback, making changes where necessary.”

Others agree with Lee. Based on overwhelming positive reviews from her MBA students, Rahmani won the 2017 Scheller College of Business Brady Family Award for Teaching Excellence.

Lee adds: “Professor Rahmani was by far my favorite professor during my two years in the Scheller MBA program. She helped me land an internship at The Home Depot and even got me engaged in some research.”

One reason Rahmani was drawn to Lee is because of her non-traditional background. Lee earned her liberal arts degree from Cornell, and had previously served as a member of AmeriCorps, the national nonprofit organization that assigns adults to in-need roles in public service, especially education. “After I served, I was hired by my AmeriCorps host site to help develop operational strategies to connect homeless individuals to sustainable income opportunities,” Lee says. “It was kind of at the intersection of business, health care and law.”

Lee’s desire to apply her MBA education to do social good impressed Rahmani, as did her professional drive. When Lee expressed how she was concerned her background wouldn’t translate to the business world, Rahmani helped her rewrite her resume point by point and advised her on how to talk about her experience and education in a light that would impress potential employers.

It worked. Lee has already landed a job at major technology research firm Gartner. “I wouldn’t have gotten this far without Professor Rahmani,” she says.

GEAR HEADS

Wayne Li, James L. Oliver Professor of Industrial Design
Chris Bartlett, Master’s of Industrial Design Student
College of Design


Wayne Li doesn’t have the typical background you’d imagine for a college professor. Before joining Georgia Tech, he was an automotive designer for Ford and Volkswagen, and a product designer for home goods retailer Pottery Barn. Li’s a self-proclaimed gear head who disassembled his first vehicle—a 1964 Mustang—for during high school, and also in his teen years showcased his artwork in galleries in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It’s not surprising that he holds degrees in both art and engineering.

When Li met Chris Bartlett, he discovered his alter ego of sorts. Bartlett, too, was a trained artist—a sculptor and metal smith—who also displayed a mechanical bent. He owned and operated a bicycle shop for a couple years, and then landed a position at Louisiana Tech University doing research and development work for a civil engineering lab.

“As I realized that I liked the rigor of R&D work and engineering, I tried to reconcile that with my love of art and people,” Bartlett says. “That’s exactly what industrial design is—applying design and art and problem solving geared for people. And Georgia Tech had the master’s program that met all those needs.”

After his first year in the program, Bartlett was looking for a summer job and he reached out to Li. “He needed somebody to help him build an automotive lab, somebody who knew cars and knew how to fabricate things,” Bartlett says. “I literally chased him down, introduced myself and passed off my resume to him and he hired me.”

Bartlett was a perfect fit for the demanding project. Like Li, his love and technical knowledge of cars goes way back. “I took apart my first truck before I was legally allowed to drive,” he says.

In 2015, Li and Bartlett started building the lab, which is sponsored by General Motors and built upon a modified 2010 Chevy Malibu interior. “It’s officially called the GM HMI lab, the HMI standing for human machine interface,” Li says. “It allows us to work with students here at Tech to envision how the cars of the future, including autonomous ones, will be designed.”

The GM HMI Lab started off as a driving simulator, says Li, with an emphasis on the design of the car’s interior and how machine and humans (drivers and passengers) interact. “We designed it to test a variety of driving experiences while having the flexibility to change and manipulate the interaction,” Li says. “We’re able to take the car apart—easily—and put it back together in different configurations, such as with or without a steering wheel and with or without pedals, and integrate different interface technologies such as advanced visual displays and even voice controls.”

Li believes that the role of cars in humans’ lives will change dramatically in the future. “With autonomous technologies, cars will be able to do much more than ever before,” he says. “They won’t be unlike a part of the family. You’ll be able to set an alarm and wake your car up with your phone, maybe send it out to McDonald’s for breakfast and even pay for it because it’s equipped with Apple Pay. Meanwhile, you’ve showered and dressed, and when it’s time to head out for work, your Egg McMuffin and coffee are waiting for you.”

Bartlett says the experience—both building the lab and allowing students to test their imaginations against it—showcases Li’s skills as a professor and Tech’s emphasis on collaboration.

“Wayne is a great example of the kind of collaborative educators you find in the School of Industrial Design,” he says. “I wasn’t just brought in to make stuff and solve problems; Wayne and other researchers asked for and valued my opinions on what the lab should do and how it could help students. In some universities, labs become very territorial things, but Wayne made sure the lab wasn’t just his—it belonged to all of us.”

DIGITAL DAREDEVILS

Nassim JafariNaimi, MS ID 03, Assistant Professor of Digital Media
and Director of Tech’s Design and Social Interaction Studio
Alyssa Rumsey, HTS 13, PhD Student in Digital Media
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts



Nassim JafariNaimi is quick to point out that her workspace at Georgia Tech is a “studio” and not a laboratory. “Labs are about the scientific method, while I think studio is a better term for describing the experimentation and getting-your-hands-dirty work with art and design work that we do here,” she says.

“Recently, in this studio, my students and I have been creating art installations for the city of Atlanta,” JafariNaimi says. “We’re working at the intersection of art, philosophy, science, education, digital media and even gaming in thinking how we can address challenging issues—such as advancing social justice or creating more public awareness of science. The city is our material, data is our material, stories are our material.”

For example, this past semester one of JafariNaimi’s studio projects was titled: Sweet Auburn: Birthplace of Ideas, where students examined stories of the civil rights movement and how they shaped social justice issues—past, present and future—in Atlanta.

Students then worked on developing different approaches to tell these stories in new ways, such as creating interactive documentaries, through the processes of ideation, critique, prototyping and collaborative design with local communities.

“The project was a counterpart to my class called ‘Critical Theory, Social Justice and Philosophy of Design,’” she says. “We looked at answering such broad topics as ‘What is the nature of justice?’ and ‘What does it mean in relationship to the design of cities, architecture, artifacts and digital media.’ Our discussions and projects ranged from the very philosophical to the very practical, such as how specific features of a city might marginalize certain groups of people, such as those needing public transportation or experiencing homelessness.”

Alyssa Rumsey is one of JafariNaimi’s PhD students. “While a lot of our work resides in the digital media space, it’s not just on digital platforms like social media,” Rumsey says. “Yes, we’re developing mobile apps and websites, but we’re also using affordable, accessible hardware like Arduino and Raspberry Pi computers, and investigating technology like augmented reality where you add digital context—demographic data, history, etc.—to physical reality.”

Rumsey came to Tech specifically because of JafariNaimi’s pioneering work in what many consider an esoteric field. “I was looking at different PhD programs and I found her research online and I knew I wanted to work with her,” she says. “We hit it off immediately, and for me, it’s not the place or program that matters most, it’s the people you work with and learn from.”

Interdisciplinary learning is crucial to Rumsey. She not only earned a Tech bachelor’s degree in history, technology and society from the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, but also she conducted all of her undergraduate research in aerospace engineering. Such a depth and breadth of knowledge made her attractive to Lockheed Martin, where she worked as a quality engineer and operations specialist for a few years.

“Seeing how airplanes and other things were made was interesting,” Rumsey says. “But I wanted to know the why. And industry wasn’t necessarily the best place for questions, which is why I looked to come back to Tech.”

Of Rumsey, her doctoral advisor has plenty of praise. “She has all this passion and asks hard questions,” JafariNaimi says. “‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘How is it going to impact the people who use it, who design it?’ ‘What are the ramifications ethically and politically?’”

She adds: “These are the design questions that are central to my research and my passions. She was a clear fit.”

But Rumsey says making the transition from the private sector to academia—to become a thinker and a teacher instead of a doer—has been tricky. “At the beginning I had no idea what was going on—the work was just so different,” she says. “But Dr. JafariNaimi’s teaching style and passions really helped me feel comfortable and find my place after that initial shock. I’ve learned a lot about myself and the research I want to do.”



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