Honors College History & Political Science major,
Class of '08
Professors Michael Barnhart, History; Richard Clark, Biomedical Engineering; Thomas Hemmick, Physics & Astronomy; Howard Lavine and Frank Myers, Political Science; Iwao Ojima, Chemistry; and Miriam Rafailovich, Materials Science & Engineering
It's a mistake to jump in on research, thinking, I'm going to cure cancer and invent the environmentally clean rocket tomorrow. If that was the case, I'm sure Dr. Hemmick would have done it far faster than any of us could! ...
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
17th century poet John Milton is said to have been the "last man to know everything." * But Mitch Fourman, is going to give it the old college try! While engaging in such diverse pursuits as viola, fencing, jiu jitsu, and crew, and serving as a volunteer EMS and fire responder, and double majoring in in History and Political Science, all the while participating in a host of student clubs & organizations, Mitch is broadening his experiences and knowledge at a prodigious clip! And his intellectual curiosity is refreshingly hard to satisfy!
At Stony Brook alone, he's worked with the research groups of: Dr. Miriam Rafailovich in Materials Science; Dr. Richard Clark in Biomedical Engineering; Dr. Iwao Ojima in Chemistry; and Dr. Thomas Hemmick in Physics & Astronomy. Targeted research foci range from supercritical fluids; to tubercolosis and anti-cancer toxin research; to educational nuclear physics outreach projects using the Van de Graff and tandem accelerators. With funding from an NSF-Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program (2005), Mitch worked the summer after freshman year on hydrogen fuel cells with Dr. Jay Benziger and Dr. Andrew Bocarsley at Princeton's Center for Complex Materials. He also spent a semester studying abroad at Magdalen College, Oxford (fall 2005), studying with Dr. Hazel Assunder and G.H.L. LeMay, Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College. Currently Mitch is working on thesis projects in the humanities with Dr. Michael Barnhart in History, and Dr. Howard Lavine and Dr. Frank Myers in Political Science while also completing his senior capstone project in the Honors College with his long-time mentor, Prof. Rafailovich.
Mitch Fourman's passion for research and discovery certainly stands out. But his many accomplishments also include securing the Benjamin Scharps Legal Essay contest (2007); being selected for USA Today's All-Academic Third Team; (2007); receiving the 2005-2006 Barry Goldwater Scholarship; being inducted into the National Gallery of Young Inventors (2005); receiving a Howard Hughes Medical Fellowship (Summer 2005); serving as a Stony Brook Student Ambassador; and being honored with the Undergraduate Recognition Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement, twice. Mitch is a member of the Stony Brook Volunteer Fire Department as an EMS and Fire Responder (2006-2007). And he was founding president of the Stony Brook Fencing Teams (2005-2006); is currently president of Stony Brook Crew (2007); and vice president of the Stony Brook Tau Beta Pi Engineering Society (2006-2008); participated in the 2004-2005 National College Bowl Team; and has served four years as an undergraduate representative on Stony Brook Alumni's Board of Directors. Mitch has presented work at the on-campus URECA research Celebration and the Northeast Biotechnology Conference (2007), and given poster and oral presentations at the American Physical Society meetings (2003, 2004). To date, he has 4 patents, involving his work with supercritical carbon dioxide.
What also really stands out in Mitch's impressive list of activities is how absolutely dedicated he is to mentoring. Working with Prof. Rafailovich and the staff at Garcia Center's Polymers at Engineered Interfaces, Mitch has helped mentor over a dozen high school students, including Intel and Siemens Westinghouse semifinalists. He himself got hooked on doing research while still in high school, working under the tutelage of Prof. Rafailovich through the Garcia Center's Research Scholar program (2002), and again the following summer through a Simons Fellowship (2003). Born in Pittsburgh PA, Mitch Fourman has been a long time resident of the Stony Brook environs: he attended the local Ward Melville HS where he participated in the exceptional INSTAR science research program. Following graduation from Stony Brook next spring, Mitch plans to complete a one-year master's program on military history at Oxford prior to returning to Stony Brook to enter the School of Medicine. When asked about the amount he has packed into his four years of college here at SBU, Mitch replies:
I keep hearing about people who say "I wish I could have done this as an undergrad or tried that." This is the best 4 years of a human's life. Undergrad is where you define yourself as human being. .. If you don't try a little bit of everything, then you can't possibly know about which parts you like, which parts you don't. So I'm trying to broaden as much as I can. And as soon as I find something I really like, I just latch on, and see how far it takes me. Below are some excerpts shared from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen:You've been involved in research in a number of areas. What's been your primary research focus?
Mitch: Dr. Miriam Rafailovich in Materials Science is going to be my advisor for my Honors College thesis. I've been with her since high school. The topic is: optimization of polymer blends and compounds using supercritical carbon dioxide. It's a nice summary of the primary focus of my work over the past 6 years, which has been a single polymer blend and trying to bring qualities to two very cheap polymers that usually you would have to pay quite a bit more in order to get. The process is environmentally friendly, very easy to promote. . . makes people happy!
What's it like working with Prof. Rafailovich?
Miriam always taught one very important thing. It was never about the grants for her, never about the money. It was, what do you think is wrong and how can we fix it? Research's ultimate goal is to benefit society. . . And she is an incredible, untiring woman! She's been such an influence on me. She puts that lust for research, that passion into you, and once you get that, you never quite walk away.
What first attracted you to doing research? What keeps you involved?
I love it! The best way to put it, I think, is that research is the facilitator by which quality of life improves. I don't want to be just someone who benefits from research. I want to be someone who actually creates a lot of things that we benefit from. The civil service component of it attracts me. As it turns out, one of the things I enjoyed most was not while I was a student, but when I got to start teaching students of my own. I started mentoring right before my freshman year. I took on my first student, John Michael Iraci. My next two years, I averaged ~2-3 students a year. This year I took on 9!
You've also had some experience in the non-sciences, right?
The experience at Oxford really started everything off. At Oxford, you have a teacher that sits opposite you, you're the only one in the room, and it's all one on one. At the end of every tutorial (we had one a week) my teacher would walk up to his big wall of books, scan for the right one, select a thousand page volume, and say: "Read this and write 20 pages and tell me what you think." I learned so much. And now I'm getting to delve into humanities research here at SBU too, working with two great people, Prof. Michael Barnhart in History on a topic along the lines of whether had Kennedy not been assassinated, would Viet Nam have occurred in the way that it did. The other thesis project is in political science with Prof. Frank Myers. . . analyzing what the psychological and contemporary differences are between patriotism and terrorism as an act.
These research topics will also involve going to a few other libraries too. That's the beauty of it. You travel around. The more collections you go to, the more people you end up speaking to, the more perspectives you gain on the topic. It'll be an interesting run. I'm really looking forward to it. And anyone who thinks it's any easier than science because you're not playing with chemicals is completely off-base. You don't play with chemicals but you play with primary sources, which can be almost as corrosive!
Tell me about your own teaching and mentoring experiences.
My best day of research actually wasn't a research day. It was the LISEF awards ceremony in 2007. At the awards ceremony, three of my students had advanced to the finals round. Steve Benay, who was a Simons Fellow, and Danielle Lent and Emily Levine who were competing as a team. I was in the back row and they started to call them up in reverse order. . . Steve got second place at LISEF. That was great! Then they called up the team, and Danielle and Emily came up and they were first place! It was really exciting. . . and it made me happy knowing something I did had an impact on someone. Later, at ISEF the team won a $25,000 award from Ricoh. Just seeing the look of glee on their faces …made me feel really great to have been a part of all that came about.
Science awards and competitions are big in Long Island. And you yourself come from a very well known high school with a strong record in science. Did this put a lot of pressure on you as a student?
Ward Melville was a great place! But the one drawback, my year particularly, was that the level of competition was so fierce, back-stabbing and cut-throat. . . that one was very split upon doing something they loved vs something they knew would get into them into Harvard. Because of that level of fierceness, many of my classmates had a very hard time to adjust in college afterwards. And for me too, Stony Brook freshman year was hard. Freshman year was a big, rude awakening for me. I had to mature.
The way to succeed in college is not to keep on thinking it's an issue of you doing better than the next guy. . . The fact is, you're never going to do better than the next guy. You need to just focus on managing yourself, and allow life to take you for what it is. . . What Stony Brook shows me, is that there are incredible human beings on this earth, and they are all over the place. It's not an issue of who's going to be exceptional. Everyone is in themselves. More important is what you make of it, what you do when you graduate . . .
You're involved with all these research projects, involved with multiple organizations, sports, music. How do you balance time with academics? What sacrifices do you make? How difficult is it for you?
It's still something I haven't gotten quite good at. Ask my ex-girlfriends! They'd tell you, I had no time at all! The fact of it is, you have to keep your priorities straight. The number #1 priority is going to be school. Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way. I had a couple of semesters where that wasn't my number one. With research, you have to make sure that you can give the commitment when you can. . . Once you understand what time you need to do research, what time you need for your classes, you can develop a healthy balance. If you manage to take your classes seriously, research is only a benefit. There isn't any negative thing to doing research.
What qualities, in your opinion, do you need to be a good researcher? What makes for a good scientist?
It's patience. You need to have patience, a want to understand, and an ability to think that sometimes the closest way to get somewhere isn't a straight line. Research in itself is never straightforward. The other half of the battle is understanding what it is you're looking at . . .being able to segregate your research into domains that make sense, domains that aren't spectacularly broad, but domains that are manageable. Maybe I don't need to evaluate 300 angles at once, maybe it's just this single one that matters right now.
It's a mistake to jump in on research, thinking, I'm going to cure cancer and invent the environmentally clean rocket tomorrow. If that was the case, I'm sure Dr. Hemmick would have done it far faster than any of us could! But if one has the patience to say, I'm not going to change the world tomorrow but if I work today, tomorrow and next year, I might be able to work a little bit towards it. That's the best way to go about it.
Patience has been a quality other students have mentioned too. Do you have a story about not getting results? or having a frustrating day of research?
Miriam has this tendency in her labs of getting some of the oldest equipment on earth. . . probably literally was older than my parents! …A machine we worked with was a C.W. Brabender. And one day, this machine successfully blew out completely. "BOOM!", a thick glass window pops out of the machine! Well we have two more, I thought. By the end of the afternoon, the other two were destroyed too! What with the shards of glass, the machine smoking on the back side of the room. . . I told the others in my group, "Let's go home. This just isn't our day to do work." It was the day before the final presentation. And it was a big deal that we didn't have that day's work. What we did instead, though, was to take a picture of the machines. We put a label on the side saying: "Don't let this happen to you!"
But that wasn't even the worst story. One time, on an osteoblast growth project… one of my students omitted the [critical] instruction that said you need to leave your sample in a vacuum oven for 6 hours to sterilize.. The result was, we contaminated everyone's sample in the incubator that day which was about 14 projects! I felt horrible.
Tell me about presenting your work.
I've had abstracts go to the American Physical Society, three of them. In 2004, I gave an oral presentation up in Montreal. It was the day after my LISEF competition. I was nervous. I'd never had trouble speaking, but my hands were shaking…. The one thing that lightened me was when the moderator got up and said, The next speaker …is Mitch Fourman from Ward Melville…[pause] High School? … I did the presentation. And I must have stuttered. . But afterwards, the scientist from Europe who spoke before me and was an expert in the field, walked up to me, patted me on the shoulder and said "You're alright kid! You have a future!"
And how about on-campus. What was the URECA research day like for you?
URECA was a great experience too. You get a lot of professors going around. And students who'd never done research before. High school students were there showing posters. There were people who knew very little about this campus who walked away from the event, thinking this is an incredible place, you're not going to see this somewhere else.They were really impressed. It's true too. At other universities I know of, doing research can be very regulated. It's not the case here. Stony Brook is the place where you can do whatever you want. This is the most open experience . . .
Do you like explaining your work to people not in the same field?
When you give your presentation, you can fall into using big words, like polymerization, supercritical enhancement, bulk foaming. But if you look at the audience and get a blank stare, which translates as "I have no idea what you just said for the last 15 moments" . . . you need to adapt. Talk as if you're a midwestern salesman. Talk very simply, convey your message, and that's the end of that. Instead of talking about polymers, you say, "Look, what type of things do you want out of the perfect plastic? Do you want something flexible, something strong? Great, This is what we did…." If I can help get my audience knowing what a supercritical fluid and nothing else, I've done something.
Certain people have helped instill speaking skills too. Frank Myer's leadership and rhetoric class was tremendous. It teaches you the ways you need to speak, the ways to convey words. It's helped me a good deal!
How valuable, would you say, is it to have a summer experience vs. doing research during the year?
The #1 thing with research is, if you do something over the summer, that's a really beneficial thing. Because when you're doing it during the year, whether you like it or not, you're not able to work more than 3 days a week. Because the fact is, we all have lives, relationships, commitments. During the summer, it's a different thing because it's now a full time job. When you have that experience of having research as a job and not just as a facet of your academic experience, then that gives you a lot of insight as to whether this is the type of thing you'd want to do, whether you have the patience, that ability. And really, whether you go into law, engineering, medicine, you are going to end up doing research in your life. You may as well figure out as much as you can now.
Plus, the real end of it is that if you love research, you're going to end up loving so much what you do that you're going to stick with it. Some realize this isn't for me but I like the experience. If you [merely] enjoy research, you're going to bounce from topic to topic until something really, really sticks. That's been a lot of me although I've stayed with materials science consistently for six years now.
Research ultimately helps you figure out what you will end up doing, what career is right for you. It's the greatest way of narrowing your search. And you walk out with experiences, with maturity. You walk out with patience.
What advice would you give to other students regarding research opportunities?
Don't wait for someone to offer it to you. Take it for yourself. Don't wait for someone to say, "Do you want to work with me?" Chances are, someone else has asked. You're not going to get that question. Look on the internet. Look at professors' websites. Look for words that make you excited. Don't wait for it because if you wait for it, it's never going to come, and you're going to lose that chance.
You've certainly managed to pack a lot of experiences, research and otherwise, into your 4 years!
I figure. . . I keep hearing about people who say "I wish I could have done this as an undergrad or tried that." This is the best 4 years of a human's life. Undergrad is where you define yourself as human being, not necessarily your career but where you define your personality, your outlook on everything. If you don't try a little bit of everything, then you can't possibly know about which parts you like, which parts you don't. So I'm trying to broaden as much as I can. And as soon as I find something I really like, I just latch on, and see how far it takes me.