With California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) bachelor’s of science degrees in chemistry and mathematics now in hand, Delora Gaskins is well on her way to a promising career as a science researcher and potential college professor.
As a recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, she took her foundation of knowledge to Brandeis University in Massachusetts this fall to earn her Ph.D. in chemistry in the laboratory of Professor Irving R. Epstein. Gaskins’ goals are to expand the boundaries of scientific knowledge in her field as well as demonstrate to the public that science is interesting and applicable to their lives.
NSF Fellows receive three years of support including a $30,000 annual stipend, a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance, international research and professional development opportunities, and access to the TeraGrid supercomputer.
The NSF already benefited Gaskins by funding scholarships and summer programs at CSULB and other universities that prepare students for science careers. Through these, she already is familiar with Epstein’s Nonlinear Dynamics Group after spending last summer in his lab creating three-dimensional simulations of waves and Turing patterns, which are found throughout nature and also have implications for health and materials sciences.
She also spent summer 2009 in the Bucknell University lab of Professor Tom Solomon, an expert in the physics of pattern formation and chaos.
Gaskins’ path to Cal State Long Beach and beyond resulted from several serendipitous events. “Reflecting back on it, there were times when I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the big picture. But I kept finding things I liked, often in random situations, and then pursued them,” she said. The presence of a campus Japanese calligraphy group helped clinch her decision to attend Long Beach, where she initially enrolled as a math major.
Another chance encounter led her to join the lab of Stephen Mezyk, a professor of physical and environmental chemistry whose RadKem (radical chemistry) Laboratory focuses on remediating contaminated water and nuclear waste, among other research areas.
“I learned about Dr. Mezyk’s lab because the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics has a student research symposium and they were showing the posters in front of the Molecular and Life Sciences building that year,” Gaskins recalled. “I decided to walk around just to see what was going on in the campus community, and I happened to see his student’s research poster. I liked the work Steve and his students were doing, and he invited me to join his research group,” and she added chemistry as a double major along with math.
Her particular interest is in how fast chemical reactions occur and how they can be observed. Since joining the Mezyk group, she’s conducted summer research at other universities, attended major national science conferences, and joined the NSF-funded Physical Science and Mathematics Scholarship program at CSULB.
In his lab, she worked on experiments in which an electron beam breaks water into pieces called radicals. These radicals can be used to break down contaminants in water. To observe how fast these reactions occur, she looks at the color of light that different chemicals emit. When it’s difficult to do this, a chemical called thiocyanate can be added to observe the reaction.
“The short explanation that I told my parents was, ‘Thiocyanate is like a measuring stick. If you have the wrong size measuring stick, you’re not going to get the right distance. My project is making sure we know how long the thiocyanate measuring stick is.’” She also studied how radioactive metals bind to a chemical called DTPA, which she said acts like a net to catch these metals.
A CSULB math class on the geometry of chaos later led her to apply for an NSF-funded summer research position in Bucknell’s Solomon lab to work on two projects to explain how reacting fronts move, where she used both chemicals and computer programs.
“If you imagine a forest fire and look at it at short time scale, the fire burns, there are dead trees after the fire and then there are living trees where it hasn’t burned yet. But if you look at it on a longer time scale, the trees died, but they’ll grow back. One is a recovered type and one is a burned type,” Gaskins explained. “The same thing occurs with diseases. You get sick and you recover, but if you get sick and die, it’s a different sort thing. We wanted to look at whether there is a difference in the way a front moves based on the type of propagation—if it’s recovered or if it’s burned. My project was to find a reaction that was a burned type, because he only had the recovered type in terms of chemistry.”
She also used computer simulations to develop a theory that explained how reacting fronts propagate in advection reaction diffusions systems.
While doing background reading for her Bucknell Projects, Gaskins came across papers from Irv Epstein at Brandeis and thought he was doing “some really neat science.” She learned more about his work when she met Epstein at a national conference, and she was later accepted to a second summer program to work with him.
“It became clear to me while working in the Epstein laboratory last summer that this is really my research passion,” Gaskins said. “There are so many interesting dynamical features to explore and I’m so excited to get started as a graduate student in this laboratory.”
She credits CSULB’s emphasis on community for her success. She became involved with CSULB’s Circle K Club, the collegiate organization of Kiwanis International, where she took part in a variety of community service projects, and also served as a campus and community math and chemistry tutor. Moreover, she noted how CSULB science faculty and student colleagues work closely for mutual benefit.
“I couldn’t have achieved everything I have without the guidance of faculty mentors like Steve or the constant support of my laboratory mates as scientific peers, classmates and friends,” Gaskins pointed out. “There is so much intellectual exchange here and being part of the scientific community—at a laboratory, college, and national level—helps you grow as a person and a scientist. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is.
“Being a part of this community means that people are willing to invest in you and help you reach your goals,” she continued. “It also means that as you grow and achieve success, like the NSF fellowship, that you share what you’ve learned with others to help them reach their own success.”