A Match Made in Durango--Cornell and Fort Lewis College

By: Chris Dawson

Dream Big

Way back around 1974 a talented high school football player in Durango, Colorado had a coach who convinced him to leave town and dream big. So instead of staying in the Four Corners region and attending college there, Matt Miller moved 350 miles away (if you take US-285) to Boulder, Colorado.

At Boulder, Miller earned a B.A. in geology and was an All-America offensive tackle drafted in the fourth round by the Cleveland Browns. He went on to a six-year profession football career.

When his football career ended, Miller started a second career as an academic.  He earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and then an M.S. and Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He joined the faculty of Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in January of 1994. Miller has been in Ithaca ever since, but he has never forgotten that coach who advised him to explore bigger opportunities and he has kept his connection with Durango.

Back in Durango

Another man with big dreams is Ryan Haaland. Only, rather than leaving Durango to explore his dreams, Haaland relocated to Durango to make his mark. Haaland is the chair and professor of physics and engineering at Durango’s Fort Lewis College (FLC). He joined the faculty at FLC in 2006 and became department chair in 2010. Before coming to Durango, Haaland was in the U.S. Air Force for 21 years and taught physics at the Air Force Academy.

Fort Lewis College is one of just two public colleges in the nation that, by charter, must  “be maintained as an institution of learning to which Indian students will be admitted free of tuition and on an equality with white students” in perpetuity. This stipulation is contained in the Act of Congress that transferred the land Fort Lewis was on to the State of Colorado in 1911.

“Many of our students are first generation college students,” says Haaland. “The faculty in the department at FLC share a strong commitment not only to teaching the subject matter of their classes, but also to working hard and doing what it takes to really see each student individually.”

“All of the students at Fort Lewis must take the Liberal Arts core classes,” says Haaland. “As a college we strive to graduate broadly-educated problem solvers who can write well and communicate ideas effectively. And as a department we focus strongly on cross-disciplinary teams of physicists, engineers, and computer engineers working together to solve problems. This approach makes students nimble once they graduate—their career options are wide open.”

The Cornell Connection

At the end of 2014 Matt Miller was back in Durango. While there he decided to visit Fort Lewis College to meet Ryan Haaland. “Matt was in town at Christmas and he wanted to talk,” says Haaland during a recent visit to the Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based Sciences and Education (CLASSE) on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. “He came by my office and in the course of the conversation Matt became a passionate believer in what we were trying to do there at Fort Lewis.”

Together, Miller and Haaland worked out a way to get some Fort Lewis students to Cornell as part of the SUNRiSE program. SUNRiSE (Summer Undergraduate Research in Science and Engineering) funds summer research opportunities in the areas of X-ray and accelerator sciences, materials science and mechanical engineering for pre-selected undergraduate students from primarily undergraduate institutions and minority serving institutions. 

The reason Cornell has a lab for accelerator-based sciences is the presence of the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS). “We are so lucky to have CHESS here on campus,” says Miller. “It is one of only two high energy rings in the US that can be used for the kind of research we do.”

The first Fort Lewis student to come to Cornell for the summer was Lindsay Chamblee, in the summer of 2015. A Fort Lewis faculty member, Dr. Donald Rabern, knew that Chamblee had an interest in solid mechanics and investigating material properties. “Dr. Rabern encouraged me to apply for the Summer Undergraduate Research in Science and Engineering (SUNRISE) program,” states Chamblee. “It was an opportunity to perform groundbreaking research alongside engineers and scientists who were innovators in their field. It was an opportunity to expand my academic experience and to explore a discipline more fully which would in turn prepare me for my post-graduation plans.”

Chamblee’s reaction to her summer at CLASSE is exactly the sort of thing Miller and Haaland were hoping would happen. “Part of our mission at FLC is to change the way our students are exposed to STEM professions,” says Haaland. “And this experience at Cornell gives them a new perspective on some of what might be possible.” Chamblee is currently earning a graduate degree in mechanical engineering at Iowa State—a future she might not have considered without her summer experience at Cornell.

Cornell’s Miller says, “I am so impressed by the Fort Lewis faculty and students. They are focused on teaching undergraduates in a way that we just can’t do here. It feels like a natural thing to work with Ryan to get more FLC students to Cornell.” Haaland adds, “This helps students see beyond the Four Corners area. These summers can be transformative for students, whether they decide to pursue a graduate degree or not—it shows them new possibilities.”

During the summer of 2018 there were four Fort Lewis College students participating in the SUNRiSE program: Kurtis Pink, Jacob Reader, Joseph Cavale, and Christopher Flynn. Each was paired with a mentor and focused on a project designed to fit a scope of eight- to ten-weeks.

“I feel like we can now understand the lingo,” says Flynn. “Especially considering that back at home none of us knew anything about using X-rays with materials and now I can understand what people are talking about.” Pink adds, “this has been a great experience. It really helps you figure out if you want to continue on to grad school.” Cavale noted the value of being part of a team of researchers. “Just about no engineering project is a one-person deal,” says Cavale. “It is important to be able to work with other people.”

On August 3, 2018 the Fort Lewis students were part of a research poster session held in the atrium of the Physical Sciences Building on the Cornell campus. They joined approximately 15 other undergraduate researchers and shared posters summarizing the summer projects they worked on. They had the chance to talk about their projects with each other and with professors, graduate students, and guests.

Kelly Nygren, a metallurgical postdoctoral researcher at Cornell’s High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) and project mentor, is an enthusiastic member of the SUNRiSE team. Nygren agrees that the experience exposes the Fort Lewis students to new possibilities. “CHESS is such a great facility,” says Nygren. “There are people here from so many STEM fields.” Nygren also points out the personal and professional benefits to her of being involved as a mentor. “Matt (Miller) trusts us to create projects and then to work closely with the students to help them learn the ropes. This is great training for when we will be managing labs of our own.”

Nygren adds, “CHESS is a National Science Foundation (NSF) project. And one of the NSF’s overarching goals is to nurture young scientist. The SUNRiSE program really fits the model of the NSF and its goals.”

“Matt came to Durango and he talked to my class at FLC,” says Jake Reader. “I was excited to come to Cornell and do some research and see what it was all about. I am leaving here with my mind open to all the possibilities.”

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