Melissa Moss has a disarming way of taking you into her confidence. Here she is, talking about her love of both teaching and research:
“This is going to sound really nerdy, but I love looking at the data with the students,” she said. “I don’t go into the lab and do experiments anymore. Instead, we talk about the data and I’ll say, ‘the data is trying to tell you something; you have to listen to it.’ It’s like a mystery puzzle.”
So it goes without saying that Moss, a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering who has taught in the South Carolina Honors College since 2004 and became a Faculty Fellow in 2014, likes puzzles. She grew up working math problems with her father, a math and science teacher and high school principal, in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Between math field-days and annual science projects, Moss’s interest in STEM fields grew, sending her to the University of Kentucky for her bachelor’s and Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Now, 18 years after she came to the University of South Carolina as an assistant professor, she finds herself in the large corner office Michael Amiridis occupied when he hired her. Moss is the first woman to chair the chemical engineering department in the College of Engineering and Computing.
“I guess it’s historic,” she said.
Then again, maybe it’s just a natural progression for someone hired to develop the college’s new biomedical engineering program and then direct it.
“I feel like being chair helps put me in a position to mentor faculty, particularly young faculty. That’s been a fun transition. It’s good for women faculty as well as students to see a female chair.”
Moss knows what it’s like to be one of few females in her field; she was one of only five women in her class of about 40 students. That’s why a recent honors course, Kinetics in Biomolecular Systems, was so memorable. Of its 15 students, 14 were women. Smaller honors courses make mentorship deeper and more meaningful, another part of the job she loves.
Gerry Koons, ’14 biomedical engineering, is one such mentee. A McNair Scholar from Wayne, Pennsylvania, Koons was connected to Moss through the McNair Scholarship’s Scholar Mentor program.
“Dr. Moss is the most dedicated mentor imaginable,” Koons said from her home in Houston, where she’s a student in the dual-degree MD/Ph.D. bioengineering program at Baylor College of Medicine/Rice University.
Koons recalled their twice-monthly lunches, to which Moss always came with opportunities for her to pursue. When Koons confided her dream of being a pediatric craniofacial surgeon, Moss didn’t forget. Learning Baylor/Rice was starting a new program in that field, she immediately let Koons know, writing a letter of recommendation when she applied. When Koons defended her dissertation in November 2021, Moss attended virtually.
“She sets an unmatched standard for nurturing the specific potential of her mentee,” Koons said, adding that she’s modeling her mentoring style after Moss’s. “I aspire to benefit my mentees as much as I have through her example.”
Moss also guided Koons in her successful application process for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. She has served on the university’s Goldwater Committee for 12 years and its national committee for nine. Of the 19 South Carolina Honors College students she’s mentored on their applications, 11 were awarded the scholarship. Three of those awardees conducted research with Moss.
“This may sound crazy, but when I do the national review, I just sit in a chair and read file after file, which sounds boring but is incredibly enjoyable,” she said. “The caliber of these students and what they’re doing — it’s interesting to see this group of kids who are so phenomenally accomplished.”
But students in general are her main motivation. They’re the reason she comes to work every day, pandemic or not.
“I love being in the classroom in front of the students, teaching and seeing their faces,” she said. “I have come to realize how much I use feedback from students to understand if they know what I’m talking about so I can adjust on the fly and reteach something. You don’t get that online. And it is also a challenge to get that with a mask.”
A positive from teaching during a pandemic is learning new ways to work. Cancelling class because of out-of-town conferences won’t be necessary anymore. With online capabilities, she can teach from anywhere.
Moss studies protein aggregation and its role in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. One of her two current projects involves a drug candidate that helps reduce inflammation associated with the disease. She has a patent on this project. Having watched her maternal grandfather’s decline from Alzheimer’s, she understands how devastating it is.
“I don’t have delusions that I’m going to discover the cure for Alzheimer’s or invent the early detection test,” she said. “I hope what we learn about a potential drug candidate or diagnostic will add to that larger body of evidence and collectively help all researchers in that area move toward those goals. That’s how science works. If you work in isolation, you can’t move the field forward. But if you inform yourself, work with others, you get to help build ideas and approaches — help make that foundation more stable for the next group of researchers who are working on similar goals.”
An avid traveler, gardener and cook, Moss says she’s happily at home in Columbia.
“I feel like I work with special faculty,” she said. “We don’t just work together, we help each other through hard stuff. I’ve collaborated with a lot of people on campus. We’ve done some good science and it’s been enjoyable at the same time.”