August 2019: College of Science Faculty

AUGUST:  EKU Faculty

Marcia WatkinsMarcia Watkins: Department of Biological Sciences

My name is Marcia Watkins. I work in the biological sciences department, where I teach anatomy and physiology, and microbiology. I am originally from Jamaica. My interest in biology began when I was 8 years old and diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Being the youngest female at the time to be diagnosed with that type of cancer, I spent 9 months in and out of the hospital getting various treatments. It was during this time that I knew that I wanted a degree in the field of science.

I’ve been a lecturer here at EKU since 2005, when I was given the rare opportunity during my last semester as a grad student to actually teach a lecture section.

Up until then, like any grad student, I was just teaching multiple labs, while taking my own classes. I realized that I really enjoyed teaching and had a passion for not just relaying the information straight out of the book, but explaining the material and relating it to real world situations. I wanted students to take the material and not just memorize it for a test, but be able to apply it to their everyday lives, even if it was something as simple as terms that they would hear on TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” or when it comes to microbiology, the movie “Contagion.” I believe that it was my excitement behind the teaching that resulted in getting high scores from student evaluations. The department head saw those results and called me one evening, asking if I would be interested in teaching an anatomy lecture. Being scared to death of such a huge responsibility for a graduate student, I almost turned the opportunity down. After I spoke with a friend about it, he told me that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and if I don’t get anything else out of it, it would look really good on my resume. So I accepted the position, but I knew my work was cut out for me, because not only was I finishing up my thesis and preparing for my thesis defense, I had also been invited to present my thesis work at American Society for Microbiology that semester as well. I knew that I would have to learn this lecture material good enough so that the students would not question my knowledge.

Nike’s slogan is “Just Do It” but I have to disagree with that slogan. No, you can’t just go do something and be successful at it the first time. It takes practice, dedication, and determination to succeed. I didn’t want to let my colleagues who saw something in me, or myself, down. So I went to instructors to learn their techniques in teaching large classes. Eventually, I got extremely good at teaching. But, it did not come easy. My first two semesters’ student evaluations were extremely poor, but I took these bad evaluations as a learning opportunity. I’ve always said that you don’t learn from good critiques and praises, you learn from the bad ones and how to improve yourself. I took those bad critiques and I improved on them each semester. Since those first two semesters my evaluations and teaching skills have improved greatly. Not only do I teach my classes with the information that they need to learn, but I also incorporate my own personal health struggles to my class as a learning opportunity.

In 2016, I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, in 2018 diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and in January of 2019 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It seems strange, but after each surgical procedure, I was always excited about coming back to work and showing my class the x-rays, or MRI results, by incorporating them into the lectures. People always ask me, after being diagnosed with cancer four times in my life, what is my drive and motivation? I always answer with two statements. One, I fight and strive for life in order to raise my four year old son, and the other is my passion for teaching those in the allied health field. I want to close with a quote from one of my favorite authors and educators, Peter Drucker, that I tell my students: "An educated person is someone who has learned how to learn and never stops learning."  As long as my brain is functioning I will never stop learning, and you should not either.

Jessica LairJessica Lair: Department of Physics and Astronomy

I was born and raised in the heart of Appalachia in Fayette County West Virginia. My mom was a math and computer science professor and my dad was a public school administrator, so education was always considered essential in my family. I was always very interested in math and science, but I fell in love with astronomy upon learning about the phases of the Moon in the 3rd grade. I attended a very small K-8 elementary/middle school and once I entered the middle school grades, I had an amazing science teacher that recognized my interest and ability in science and highly encouraged me to continue learning. I consider myself extremely lucky that I was in that school and had that teacher for all of my middle school years because he shared my love of astronomy and not only encouraged me, but expected me to pursue it and be successful.

Once in high school, I was able to arrange my schedule by doubling up on classes to finish the high school math courses early and begin taking classes at West Virginia Institute of Technology. Even though I was what some considered “nerdy” because I was good at math, I also was a majorette for the marching band, played on the tennis team, and had a black belt in karate! I also consider my high school experience to be somewhat lucky because, even though it was a very small school, I had a good core group of friends that were all “nerdy” but still popular and involved at school.

I decided to attend West Virginia Institute of Technology, which is where my mom was a professor, and I double majored in Engineering Physics and Mathematics. I was involved in both departments by working as a tutor in the math department and a lab instructor in the physics department. I also participated in outreach activities for both departments. The summer after my sophomore year, I worked on an EPSCoR-funded research project in the area of solid state physics.
I then attended Clemson University for graduate school. While in grad school, I worked as a teaching assistant, teaching Introductory Astronomy labs and eventually working as the course assistant for the large lecture sections of Introductory Astronomy. I volunteered to work in the planetarium, doing shows for groups ranging from preschool-aged children to senior citizen groups. My research was investigating the late-time light curves of Type Ia Supernovae. This was an observational project, so I traveled to observatory sites multiple times throughout my grad school years. I earned a Master’s degree and Ph. D. from Clemson, both in Physics.
I came to Eastern Kentucky University as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy following graduation from Clemson. Since joining the faculty, I have continued my research using ground-based observations, as well as adding some space-based observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Swift satellite. I have also been involved in education research involving astronomy and physics education.
I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I did not encounter much adversity along my educational path, aside from the hard physics problems! Most of the challenges I faced have come since joining academia as a professor, with the biggest of those challenges being a working mother. I am fortunate to have a supportive husband and family; without them this journey would be impossible.

Dae Wook KimDae Wook Kim: Department of Computer Science

I am originally from Busan, South Korea and moved to America for college in 1999. I graduated from Michigan State University with a BS in Computer Science and Engineering in 2003 and received a MS degree at Syracuse University in 2007. I continued my PhD program at Wright State University, graduating in April 2017 and joined the Department of Computer Science at Eastern Kentucky University as a tenure-track faculty in August 2017. My research interests include cyber security, and data science.

Nearly every condition of EKU Computer Science department is ideal for me to start my STEM career here. Among the several critical reasons why I’ve chosen EKU for my STEM journey, the most significant reason is EKU’s rigorous undergraduate program with remarkable teaching-oriented faculty. Secondly, Dr. Ka-Wing Wong, department chair, said that the EKU CS department faculty passionately try to nurture undergraduate students as good researchers; and that the department has a warm and family-like atmosphere. Finally, Dr. Wong referred to EKU CS department’s nice, safe, teaching- and research-friendly circumstance. He joked, “The city is quiet and not busy, there are not so many things to do but teaching and research”.

I was so impressed by the EKU Computer Science department. Therefore, I studied the EKU CS departmental degree programs and the faculty’s research papers especially in my research field, and I found that the EKU CS department has a very focused structure of coursework and outstanding faculty members in the field of Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity in the sense that the curriculum focuses both on practical skills and methodology and on theories with such classes as Network Forensics and Mobile Device Security & Privacy, and the faculty members in Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity have kept publishing in peer-reviewed journals in recent years; involving undergraduates in active research activities made me expect to learn about quality and rigorous advising. Additionally, through job placements of students at the EKU CS department, I could see their competency as educators. Most importantly, I found a faculty whose research interests fit mine well; I consider that such distinguished professor as Dr. Shuangteng Zhang can greatly guide me to be a competent researcher too.

With the department chair’s full support, I built the Machine Learning and Deep Learning (MLDL) laboratory to facilitate our students to have hands-on research experience in terms of the projects related to cybersecurity and data science in the real word. I currently have 12 undergraduate students and 1 graduate and am working on 6 projects for multiple semesters. Our MLDL Lab student members had good achievements for the internal/state-level/national conference presentations and research scholarships, and have presented at local, regional, and national meetings. My research has been supported by EKU Faculty Mini-Grant (Fall 2017), EKU COS Junior Faculty Summer Research Award (Spring 2018), EKU Foundation Scholarship (Spring 2018), and NSF-REU Summer Cybersecurity Research Scholarship (Summer 2018, 2019). Also, MLDL Lab has two alumni who had full time job offers from multinational/local IT consulting companies.

I am very proud of our MLDL Lab students’ good performance and the EKU Computer Science department is the best STEM institute which channels my passion and faithfulness about teaching and research and belief and firmness about it to real results.

Cory BlackEagleCory BlackEagle: Department of Geosciences

I have been fascinated with Earth and geology ever since I was a little kid. My Mom claims it was “since [I] was knee-high to a grasshopper.” She may be correct in that statement because it feels as much a part of who I am as my body does. I have always attributed my passion for Earth to being Lakota, since, to us, Earth is the mother and grandmother to everything that is alive, and everything that is not man-made is alive and possessing of spirit and mind.

In junior high, I started wanting to be a geologist, teach, do research, and get my Ph.D. In high school, my guidance counselor told my parents and me that I was “not college material” and I would be “better and happier pursuing a trade.” Why would the high school counselor do this? I was an A student, varsity athlete, and graduated in the top 5% of my graduating class in one of the best high schools in the state. Maybe they thought the same thing my paternal grandmother did when Grandma told me at the age of 7 “don’t be so happy [about being Lakota] - all Indians are drunken, no good bums.” She drove that message home every time she hit me with a broom and said I was a no-good Indian.

This history is a direct result of the forced boarding-school era in which Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes, families, and people. In these concentration camps, the “Indian” was beaten out of the children, pride in self was forcibly destroyed, and knowledge of language and customs was eradicated via abuse. This legacy of trauma has become intergenerational, and my grandparents, though raised “city Indians” and never in a boarding school themselves, learned it from their parents so well that they, too, denied being Lakota to themselves and everyone else. I am the only one in my family to publicly and proudly acknowledge and honor our Lakota blood and heritage and take the Lakota family name. Still, I often flinch in fear of admitting I am Lakota – that, too, is in my genes. Despite disavowing our Lakota heritage, my parents told me I could be and do anything I set my mind to and fully supported me as I graduated with my Bachelor of Science degree in geology (minor in astronomy). They were there in the stands cheering as I received my Master of Science degree in geology from EKU.

As an adult and a professional geologist, I have continued to be proud of my Lakota heritage in spite of being the brunt of covert and overt discrimination and harassment for it, the many hurdles thrown in my way and jobs not obtained because of it. I have been asked, “How can you be a geologist if you don’t collect rocks? What do you mean it is a spiritual reason?” I used to belong to an organization in Kentucky who published its history going back to pre-statehood, and it says the first chapter built a meeting house “once the threat of Indian violence had been removed.” The organization’s president didn’t understand why I complained about it or why I quit the organization over it.

Add to this my disability from a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). It took 11 years after it happened to be diagnosed and the problems I have from it to be validated and accommodated. Medical doctors kept dismissing my descriptions of the problems, even when they were quite observable to anyone who interacted with me. Once it was diagnosed, because it is a hidden disability, my medically and legally-mandated accommodations are ignored and I am dismissed with “I don’t see a disability” or “you look fine.”

I have a long and successful career as a geologist despite the Lakota intergenerational trauma and the effects of discrimination. I absolutely LOVE geology, the Earth System, being Lakota, and the gifts that my TBI have given me (and it has given me gifts). I think studying the Earth System is a form of love to the Earth and it is the best form of service I can give to the Circle of Life and to the humans who live within it. Helping others realize that same sense of awe and wonder for the things that affect our daily lives (the ground we walk on, the air we breathe, the rain that makes our crops grow, etc.), and fall in love with Earth and want to protect it is the most amazing gift. Who wouldn’t want to be a geoscientist? So, be strong, be proud, and persevere in following your dreams no matter what someone does or says! Be proud of who you are, where you come from, and what it means to you. Be courageous.

Tanea ReedTanea Reed: Department of Chemistry

I received my doctoral degree in December 2007. I did not take a traditional path for this achievement. I started my journey in STEM as a chemical engineering major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Being good in science and math, that was what you were supposed to do. Engineering was not a good fit, but I was passionate about chemistry. Learning how chemical reactions occur, and how little tweaks can affect these reactions occurring in your body at any time, thus began my love of biochemistry. After graduation, I decided to work in the profession and became a laboratory technician at the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services in Richmond, VA. This was an excellent experience and training ground for me to learn more about biochemistry and molecular biology. After five years, I felt that there was more to life than working in a lab for 40+ hours a week.

Going back to school after working a steady job for five years was not an easy decision, but I felt that was the best decision for me. I was admitted to the University of Kentucky’s Chemistry graduate program. Under the leadership of Dr. Allan Butterfield, I worked on a research project in which I completed several proteomics experiments to establish a protein assessment of oxidatively modified proteins identified throughout the four stages of Alzheimer’s disease. After 4.5 years of hard work, I graduated and worked as an adjunct chemistry professor at Berea College before coming to EKU. My research expertise is in neuroscience, specifically developing therapies for moderate traumatic brain injuries.

During my academic and research journey, I have been fortunate to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and serve on review panels for Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Science Foundation, and the NIH. Additionally, I have written several book chapters and published 20+ papers in scientific journals. As an African-American female in chemistry/neuroscience, the road has not always been easy. I am typically the only person that looks like me when walking into any scientific meeting. I have been underestimated and sometimes ignored. Although I have had challenges throughout my career, I have persevered. Although I didn’t take the “traditional” method in obtaining my degree, I made a path for myself and took the “road not taken” and that has made all the difference.

Tom OtienoTom Otieno: Dean, College of Science

I was born and raised in Kenya, and obtained my B.Sc. degree in chemistry at the University of Nairobi. I then proceeded to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where I obtained my M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees, both in chemistry.
I was a first generation student who went through public schools in a highly competitive educational system where high-stakes testing was the order of the day. My parents (especially my mother) and teachers had very high expectations for me. For example, although I had very good scores in all subject areas and I was ranked first out of the 57 students in my 7th grade class, the class teacher’s comments on my report card were not particularly complimentary. The teacher wrote, “He is alright, but he should put in more effort. If he does, he should expect better results.” The message was clear. No matter how well someone performs, there is always room for improvement.
Although I ended up with three degrees in chemistry, my performance in the subject was average when I began high school. At one point, around 10th grade, our chemistry teacher went on maternity leave. The substitute teacher told us that he would give us a test on a specific topic to gauge our abilities. I studied very hard for that test and scored one of the highest grades. This outcome gave the teacher the impression that I was one of the smartest students in the class. I wanted him to keep thinking that way. So, after every chemistry class, I reviewed the content covered thoroughly so that I would be able to answer questions in the following class. My desire to please the teacher motivated me to work harder, which enhanced my performance in the subject.
Our high school curriculum was rigorous and contained many subjects. One had to study extremely hard to do well. Each year of grades 9 through 12, I took 8 core courses that included English, History, Geography, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, and Kiswahili plus additional elective courses. My performance was very good in all the 8 core courses, which indicated that I had the aptitude to major in any of the subjects. However, I enjoyed the non- science subjects the most. So why did I choose to major in the STEM area? The prevailing view was that there were better career options with a STEM major.
To achieve the best performance possible requires more than just studying hard; one also needs to study smart. This habit is particularly true in the sciences where each lesson covered tends to build on material previously covered. Studying smart includes taking good notes, reviewing material covered as soon as possible after the class and before the next class, reviewing the content multiple times throughout the semester, and studying with peers. At the University of Nairobi, there were five of us who took the same classes together and also studied together. We held each other accountable and took turns explaining different sections to the group. You not only benefit from the perspective of the others, but also enhance your understanding of the material if you have to explain it to others.
In summary, my embracing the high expectations set for me by others, pursuing a rigorous curriculum in high school, working hard, and studying smart facilitated my high academic achievement. My interest in chemistry was particularly motivated by my desire to please a high school chemistry teacher. Ultimately, the belief that STEM disciplines offer more career options and better paying jobs had a significant influence in my choosing chemistry as my major.

Mengkun YangMengkun Yang: Department of Computer Science

When I was a kid, I dreamed of becoming a musician, a police officer, a doctor, a teacher, and so on. I kept coming up with various dreams until one day in high school, in a science class, my teacher taught me to compose a short piece of music using a sequence of programming statements. Can you imagine how excited I was when the computer played out my music? At that very moment, I realized computers could do magic things instead of just displaying numbers and characters. Moreover, I could instruct computers to accomplish those amazing things and I could do it well. It was that moment that led to my career in Computer Science. Now as a college professor, I have a new dream. I hope my classes could triggers students’ love in Computer Science, just as what my high school class did to me.