Chemistry professor's research creates opportunities for students, ties abroad
Crystals. They’re everywhere as Mamoun Bader leads a tour through the laboratories at Penn State Hazleton.
Orange granules in a dish – they’re for a cancer research project, he said. Another sample, the same shade of yellow green as a highway worker’s T-shirt, glows still brighter when Bader sticks it beneath ultraviolet light. “In solution, it is extremely fluorescent. We use it for bio stain.”
A green crystal, perhaps an inch long, glistens like the sprinkles on a Christmas cookie. “Shiny means lot of electrons,” he said.
Bader and his students know crystals. They grow them. They fill pages with calculations to describe them. They sketch them, plot their structure with X-ray precision and spread them in thin films for semi-conductors. And they publish scientific papers about them.
Bader, an associate professor of chemistry who has authored more than 30 academic publications, lets students join his research projects when they arrive at campus as freshmen. They gain an opportunity to have their names listed in academic publications and in the proceedings of scientific conferences “right out of high school,” Bader said. By comparison, he first published in the academic world when he was a “fourth year Ph.D. student.”
Some of his students have gone on to do their own doctoral work at leading institutions. Two budding scientists, once lab partners in Bader’s classes, now are husband and wife and work together for a pharmaceutical company. “They invited me to the wedding,” Bader said.
The research program that Bader started for freshmen and sophomores in Hazleton has spread beyond science and engineering to social sciences and the humanities. In the past 12 years, 380 students have presented their original work at the annual research fair on campus.
Training undergraduates at Hazleton to conduct research is an undertaking. When freshmen enter the lab, they are unsure how to follow simple procedures such as filling a beaker with a measured amount of water. “They’re shaking,” Bader said. “You teach them skills.”
For the gung-ho students, Bader holds boot camp. Right after finals, he leads them through three weeks of training for which they receive stipends and guidance for spending the rest of the summer in research program at the University of Minnesota. Bader did post-doctoral studies at Minnesota and maintains connections there. At boot camp, he teaches safety regimens and covers basics, such as how to order supplies or operate equipment.
“Sometimes, I intentionally make a glitch in an instrument,” Bader said. He monitors how the students trouble shoot the problem by telephoning helplines or checking for guidance online.
“I watch them struggle, which is fine. They really learn how to solve problems. They become independent,” he said. Solving the puzzles of research taught perseverance to Basant R. Nassar, who studied with Bader the past two years.
“He taught me about life and the ‘real world.’ Science, like anything else, requires patience, commitment and dedication. It doesn’t always go your way and a lot of times you fail. But it is in those failures that we learn and grow stronger,” Nassar wrote in an e-mail.
Nassar credits Bader with helping open up research opportunities that Nassar accepted at the University of Virginia last summer and the University of Minnesota the year before.
Penn State Hazleton students heading to Minnesota often begin their experiments during Bader’s boot camp. They ship samples to Minnesota before traveling there with Bader, who remains their instructor. During the summer, the students receive training in scientific ethics, hear guest lectures and present their own research. They also attend Minnesota Twins games, Mississippi River cruises and pizza parties with students attending the program from universities across the country.
While instructing in Minnesota, Bader pays for part of his expenses and spends much of the summer away from his family. “I fee like I made an impact on someone’s life,” Bader said when asked what he gets out of directing students in research.
He considers research an integral part of teaching as students learn to think for themselves and hatch the ideas that are at the root of every good experiment. “My philosophy is: use what is available. With it you come up with some good ideas,” Bader said.
To expose students to ideas, Bader invites scientists from other universities to Penn State Hazleton. He also travels to other universities, delivering guest lectures.
This summer, he will spent six weeks at Al Ain University for Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates where he taught for four years prior to joining the faculty at Penn State Hazleton. He also will be at the University of Technology in Malaysia, which first welcomed him as a lecturer last winter.
Through his travels, he wants to organize student and faculty exchanges. “Hopefully it will bring some international dimension. Our students stand to benefit,” Bader said.
The exchanges help students understand that scientists form a community. “We learn from each other,” Bader said. “It’s an opportunity to see the world differently and learn to work with others.”
Bader grew up in a different part of the world, earning his bachelor’s degree at the Qatar University in Doha, Qatar. He gained his doctorate at the University of Southern California and then worked two years as a researcher for Hitachi’s laboratories in Japan before returning to academia.
His own research delves into the optical and electronic traits of organic materials such as contrast dyes and semi-conductors. He designs optical power limiters that protect eyes from lasers, a safeguard that interests the military. For medical research, he experiments with material that warms while absorbing photons and might be a way to put the heat to cancer.
Bader becomes animated when talking about his ideas, such as his curiosity about what would happen if he hooked a compound that donates electrons to the ends of an electron acceptor. “The molecule is confused,” Bader said, raising one palm and lowering another like a scale reaching balance. Will the molecule accept electrons or donate them? “The molecule says, ‘Hey, I can do both,’” as Bader discovered when he built the molecule in the lab.
Research published on the molecule is now one of the most-cited of Bader’s articles in scientific literature.
Nassar said Bader teaches that research doesn’t have to be high tech. Basic research, she said, can have an impact on science and the world. Nassar worked with organic molecules useful in solar cells, molecular wires and other devices that could be made cheaply and at low temperatures.
The research led to a publication last year in “Crystal Growth and Design” of a paper by Nassar, Bader, another Penn State Hazleton student Hui Lin and other authors. Their topic: extended 7,7,8,8-tetracyano-p-quinodimethane-based acceptors.
Before examining molecules as complex as their names imply, students delve into the scientific literature when beginning a research project. They search for chemicals that exist in theory but haven’t been produced. “No one in the world made it. You are going to be the first to make it,” Bader tells his students. “We’re going to make it, map it.”
Using X-ray diffraction, they depict the structure of the crystal and notice how the molecules are arrayed. Bader and his students seek to arrange, or pack, the molecules in ways that enhance their electrical and optical properties.
Then the objective of their research becomes clear. Like crystal.