Morgan Stefik has plenty to say about the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter. Stefik doesn’t work in aeronautics — he’s an associate professor in USC’s chemistry and biochemistry department. But he does know what sent the $125 million space probe on the wrong trajectory, ultimately dooming the mission: Someone neglected to convert critical data from English measurements to metric.
Stefik teaches his General Chemistry students to also think of chemical reactions and mass-energy relationships as such conversions. It’s a lesson he emphasizes to his undergraduate students, some of whom will eventually plot spacecraft trajectories, design bridges or enter other STEM careers. And it’s why he describes teaching Gen Chem — which he’s taught 10 times since joining USC 10 years ago — as his “main calling” in undergraduate instruction.
“It's like I get to rewind to the first formative moments in a STEM career and say, ‘This is the most important thing you're getting in college, in my opinion,’” he says. “If you can just do this right, it'll save you in your upper-level classes and later in your career too.”
Gen Chem gives students a strong foundation in chemistry basics: measurements, the periodic table, mass-energy relationships. As a bonus, Stefik also sees it as a chance to introduce students to the world of research. Each semester, he explains what it’s like to earn a Ph.D. and where to begin exploring research opportunities at USC.
It wasn’t that long ago that he was in their shoes. Stefik got his bachelor’s in materials engineering from California Polytechnic State University before earning a master’s and Ph.D. from Cornell University. He credits his undergraduate mentor, Kathy Chen, for pointing him toward a career in academia.
“That's where I learned that research was enjoyable and fulfilling,” he says. “She opened my eyes to graduate school and different research career possibilities. That's something I echo now in my undergraduate classroom.”
He offers guidance outside the classroom, too. Just ask the 20 undergraduate researchers he’s mentored in the past decade. Between them, they’ve earned nine grants and authored five publications. Eight have entered graduate school.
Those stats don’t surprise Stefik. Students who like to solve puzzles are often drawn to research. The best way to support them, he’s found, is to nurture their natural curiosity.
“When someone's motivated, all you have to do is just steer lightly,” he says. “It's like, ‘Oh, you've hit a wall. Did you realize you can go in this other direction?’ Or, ‘Are you sure that's what really happened?’ ”
For his undergraduate researchers, Stefik gives them a taste of what it’s like by inviting them into his research group, which has regular coffee gatherings and other social events. There, students begin to understand how integral teamwork is to the graduate school experience. Camaraderie can foster collaboration in the lab.
And when it comes to doing their first research project — maybe exploring techniques to prepare the active materials in batteries, for example — Stefik and a graduate student mentor guide them through it at a slow but steady pace.
“I try to involve them in sort of a simulated graduate experience,” he says. “They get a project, they're as independent as they can be at that stage, and they can come to group meetings to present and are social with the group. We integrate them in, give them full support and let them do experiments.”
Students are under no illusions that the Ph.D. lifestyle will be easy. From Day One, Stefik is honest about the realities. They will have to maintain a 3.5 GPA, bare minimum. They will have to take initiative when seeking out research opportunities. Sometimes writing papers will feel impossible.
It’s the same guidance he once received from Chen. Stefik still has the book she gave him in undergrad, a collection of comic strips that poke fun at graduate school’s stresses and frustrations.
But the flip side of that, he knows, is the sense of accomplishment that students feel when their hard work finally pays off.
“One of the adages in the group is that the harder it is to get your paper done, the more rewarding it will be when it's accepted, which is hard to convince them of in the thick of it,” Stefik says. “I've had a lot say thank you. ‘Thanks for pushing me through that. I didn't see it but, but it worked out in the end.’ They're quite proud of their achievements.”