Remembering John Neptune (1919-2017)

Dr. John Neptune, who served the Department of Chemistry at SJSU for 52 years, passed away in April 2917 at the age of 97. Dr, Neptune joined the Chemistry faculty in 1955 as an Assistant Professor. Prior to coming to SJSU, he received his BA Summa Cum Laude from Muskingum University in Ohio. During WW II. Dr. Neptune worked at Oak Ridge National laboratory purifying uranium as part of the Manhattan Project. He returned to Maskinum after the war, where joined the Chemistry faculty and met his wife, Ruth Dorsey, who taught in the department of Fine Arts.  In 1948, the Neptunes moved to Wisconsin, where John received his master’s and doctorate in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin .At SJSU, he primarily taught analytical and general chemistry, and served the department as chair from 1973 to 1986. He also maintained an active research program, obtaining grants from NASA and the Department of Energy. Retiring from his regular faculty role in 1990, Dr. Neptune continued teaching at SJSU as a Professor Emeritus until 2007. A generous philanthropist, Dr. Neptune endowed the John Neptune Scholarship in Chemistry, and also contributed to his church and to Muskingum College. A master teacher, Dr. Neptune devoted over half a century to helping our students succeed in chemistry, and we are saddened by his passing.

Tapas Talks and Student Research Day

On Tuesday, April 11, the College of Science hosted a new event, entitled Tapas Talks, in the MLK Library that served as a showcase for Research efforts by College of Science Faculty. Over three hours, 25 COS faculty gave five minute overviews of their research programs. The event was organized by College of Science Associate Dean for Research Marc d’Alarcao, who ran a tight ship ensuring that faculty kept within their five minute windows. In keeping with the theme of the event, Tapas from Picasso’s Tapas Restaurant were available throughout the three hour event. Faculty presenters represented all of the COS on-campus departments, and covered areas as diverse as cybersecurity, fluid mechanics, fetal alcohol syndrome, educational tools for the study of climate change and chemistry, analysis of faults in the bay area,  the engineering of light-activated enzymes, and the use of data science to discover and characterize galaxies. All of the participants were recent recipients of Research funding from the College of Science and/or the Office of Research. This well-attended event will become a regular showcase for COS faculty research, allowing COS faculty and staff to learn about the great work their colleagues are doing and to help students identify potential research mentors. Kudos to Dr. d’Alarcao, Associate Dean Elaine Collins, and the COS Staff for organizing this successful event.

Speaking of student research, the next event celebrating COS research productivity will be our annual Student Research Day, which will take place from 10 AM-1PM on Friday, May 5 in the Breezeway below Duncan Hall. As in past years, this event will showcase over 60 examples of student-driven research in the College, and it is a great way to not only see the variety of research our students are doing with COS faculty, but also provides an opportunity to talk to students about their projects. We hope you will be able to attend.

High-Performance Computing

An interdisciplinary team led by Sen Chiao from Meteorology and Climate Science and Ehsan Khatami from Physics and Astronomy have just gone online with a new high-performance computing cluster that was funded by a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for which Chiao is the Principal Investigator. The computer cluster, which went online this week, is housed at the computing facility for the SJSU Research Foundation, which was chosen when none of the existing facilities on the main campus were found to have sufficient cooling and power to support the energy needs of the new instrumentation.

The HPC facility will be put to use by faculty in almost every COS department, with researchers solving problems in areas as diverse as atmospheric science, condensed matter physics, astrophysics, bioinformatics and genomics, aerospace engineering, and applied mathematics.


College of Science Student Discoveries in the News

I am happy to report that some of the best news coming out of San Jose State this summer has involved students in the College of Science. In the Department of Physics and Astronomy, undergraduate students  Richard Vo and Michael Sandoval made headlines when it was announced that ech of them had discovered  previously unknown  ultracompact dwarf galaxies.  Both  students are doing research with Assistant Professor Aaron Romanowsky, whose research focus is computational astrophysics.   Vo, the youngest of 10 children from a South San Jose family,  was already a physics major when he took Romanowsky’s computational methods class. He was enthralled by the use of digital data to solve astronomical problems and approached Romanowsky about doing research under his guidance.  The first problem Romanowsky tasked Vo with was using computational data to locate a very dense galaxy that Romanowsky and a research team had been studying. Vo completed that task and, in the process, discovered a previously undetected ultra-compact galaxy even denser than the one his faculty mentor was working on. Last spring, Vo was able to visit the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to view his discovery directly.

Sandoval, who was taking Romanowsky’s class with Vo, was excited by his colleague’s discovery and asked if he too could enter the hunt. After going through the same steep learning curve Vo experienced mastering the computational astrophysics software, Sandoval, beyond all expectations, located another galaxy even more compact than the one Vo found. Finding such a singular astronomical object could easily be the crowning moment of an astronomer’s career. To have two undergraduate research students succeed in finding hyperdense galaxies is a testament to Romanowsky’s skills as a research mentor and to the determination and persistence of his two students. The trio are currently collaborating on a research paper to share their results with the astronomical committee. Vo started this fall as a graduate student at San Francisco State while Sandoval is currently finishing up his program here at SJSU.

Over at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, graduate student Paul Clerkin has been getting international notice for making a series of very different discoveries. Working under Dr. David Ebert at the Pacific Shark Research Center, Clerkin has done extsnsive field work in the Indian Ocean looking for previously unknown shark species.  His first season yielded eight new species, and he anticipates that at least three will come from the second voyage last summer. Clerkin, who grew up watching the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, has now emerged as a very articulate and enthusiastic shark hunter on the same channel, and he was featured earlier this month in a front page article in the San Jose Mercury News.

Both of these stories emphasize the importance of student research at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and the importance of our faculty’s roles as research mentors. Not only do their research programs inform their teaching and contribute significantly to the body of reasearh in their chosen fields,  but they also provide inspiration and opportunities for the scientists of the future we train here in the College of Science.

Our Remarkable MARC, LSAMP, and RISE students

One of the greatest opportunities open to students in the College of Science is the chance to become involved in research at the undergraduate level. Many students who choose to work in the labs of one of the college’s world-class professors end up as authors on papers published in top peer reviewed journals, and many give presentations at local, national, and international meetings. Today I will highlight just a few recent accomplishments of our research students.

Each year, a group of students from SJSU attend the International meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). At this year’s meeting, held in San Antonio this fall, Biology student Jodie Wu won an outstanding poster award, and  recent physics graduate Patricio Piedra received an outstanding oral presentation award.

At the fall ABRACAMS Meeting (Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students), 27 SJSU students presented, and six of them were selected by judges for awards.  They are Beatriz Camacho (Chemistry), David Carrillo (Biological Sciences), Marc Gancayco (Chemistry), Vanessa Jimenez (Biological Sciences), Cindy Martinez (Psychology) and Jacob Schekman (Chemistry).  All of these students are participants in one of the college’s three programs aimed at supporting students from underserved backgrounds – MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers), RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement), and LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation). Another MARC student, Diana Romero, working in the lab of SJSU microbiologist Cleber Ouverney, received a prestigious undergraduate capstone award from the American Society of Microbiologists. For the last three years, SJSU has led the CSU system in the number of awardees (6-7 each year) of NSF predoctoral fellowships, which fully support a student’s graduate studies at the research university of their choice.

This proud record of student success would not have been possible without the herculean efforts of a dedicated core of faculty, including Karen Singmaster (Director of SJSU’s RISE and LSAMP programs and Herb Silber (former MARC director) from Chemistry and Leslee Parr (current MARC Director) from Biology have built these programs over the years, and have, along with other faculty who mentor MARC and RISE research students, have created a supportive environment for students from underserved backgrounds interested in pursuing biomedical research as undergraduates leading into postgraduate study.

The MARC program was recently renewed for another two years, but with a 54% cut in funding relative to the previous cycle. The announcement of these cuts last summer spurred our faculty and students to civic action. A letter-writing campaign to our representatives got the attention of Congressman Mike Honda, a long-time supporter of STEM education. Honda arranged to visit with our MARC students and faculty in September, and a scheduled 30 minute visit stretched to two hours as students and faculty involved in the program shared their successes and aspirations for research careers with the congressman. SJSU has shown that investment in these programs results in dramatic successes in moving students from underserved backgrounds into success as undergraduate researchers, as research students in top graduate programs, and onwards towards careers as STEM leaders of tomorrow. If government funding for these programs continues to decrease, we will need to increasingly look towards corporate and community partners to continue our efforts to help our bright, talented students to reach their full potential.