We have chosen Professor Dinsmore to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his research in soft matter and biomaterials, his role as the Undergraduate Program Director, and his role as the Co-Director of the new Soft Quantum Biology Interface (SQuBI) center. Professor Dinsmore specializes in Soft Condensed Matter and Nanoscale Self-Assembly. Please take a few minutes to check out the Dinsmore Research Group website.
What is your professional background? What did you major in and where? Where did you go to graduate school and for what? How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?
I was an undergrad at Yale, majoring in Physics. I then went to the Physics PhD program at UPenn, where I completed my PhD in 1997. When I started college, I did not know what my major would be. I narrowed it to the sciences (physics or chemistry) in my first year. Then my older brother went to grad school in chemistry so, to be different, I chose physics! However, I collaborate quite a lot with chemists and there is a fair amount of chemistry in my group’s research program. Many of our students have a range of interests and I think that is healthy.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to? What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?
I began research in the summer after my junior year. I loved it and began to picture myself working as a scientist. That experience made me want to go to graduate school. Because my older brother went to grad school in chemistry, I had a good idea of what grad school would be like. (For students who are reading this and don’t know what grad school is like, I urge you to talk to your advisor, your instructor, and to any of the 80 or so PhD students we have here at UMass. You will learn a lot.) I applied to six PhD programs and visited three. I knew I wanted to study condensed matter but did not have a clear idea of what subfield, so I chose UPenn for its overall research activity.
What is your advice for a student who wants to go to industry?
First, I’d like to say that I wanted to work in industry through graduate school and was still considering it just before I started at UMass as an Assistant Professor. There are so many exciting things to work on and I was (and still am) very attracted to the idea of working on problems with practical relevance. My field of research, soft matter, has many examples of products and technologies coming from years and years of fundamental research – think of latex paint (a particle suspension or ‘colloid’), cosmetics (colloids, emulsions, polymer solutions), oil exploration and recovery (granular materials), and printing (granular materials again, or fluid mechanics), and foods (many of which are colloids or emulsions).
For students who are interested in industry – as many of our students are – I think the ideal training is not different from those who want to go into academia: a strong fundamental background with good course grades, plenty of research experience with enthusiastic recommendation letter(s), and experience in developing and communicating ideas through writing and presenting. These latter skills are addressed in our iLab and junior year writing courses, as well as by working with a research group.
Part of the challenge in finding jobs in industry is knowing what and where the opportunities are. We faculty hope to help with that, starting this year. We plan to invite physicists to campus who are working in industry so they can meet with our students and talk about their careers. Some of these visitors will be alumni and may be very helpful contacts. If you are a student, please keep your ears and eyes open for notices of these visits.
For any student, my most urgent advice is this: get to know at least one professor very well, other than your academic advisor. At UMass, there is a vast amount of activity in research and outreach that is not visible in the classroom. How can you become a part of it? Because we are a large university, it can be a challenge to get to know any of the faculty very well. It requires some initiative, for instance going to office hours, asking questions in person or by email, asking about research, assisting as a TA, joining a research group, etc. Once you know a professor, you can ask about research, jobs, teaching, lifestyle, grad schools, conferences, and so on.
Briefly, explain your research:
We study soft matter: colloids, membranes, nanoparticles & powders. We learn basic science in real materials by probing structure & dynamics
What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?
There is no single class that comes particularly close to my research topic, but concepts of statistical mechanics, optics, and solid state physics are very helpful. I have worked with many students who haven’t had these courses, though. First-year freshmen can apply!
Do you take undergraduates in your research group? What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?
Yes, my group usually has between three and five undergraduates working on research projects. Students have their own research topic – something that they can individually develop and be proud of. Undergraduates also work with one or more grad students to provide more detailed guidance. I have published many papers with undergraduate students as co-author and three papers with undergraduates as first-author.
What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level?
Any of them! Especially the courses for physics majors, simply because our students are so capable and enthusiastic.
What do you do outside of physics? Do you have a hobby?
My hobby is renovating my house and making things in my home woodworking shop. I have always enjoyed building. When I was in high school and in college, I worked for a residential construction and renovation company. I think my interest in making things influences the science that I work on.
We know you are the Physics Undergraduate Program Director at UMass. What is your personal approach to the directorship? What do you hope to teach and give to undergraduate students at UMass?
Much of the UPD job is advising – both advising individual students and overseeing the advising program in the department. These are both very important to me. This is partly because I had some good guidance when I was young but, frankly, not through my college’s advising program. Like my colleagues, I want to make sure that we offer good, detailed, and specific advising for students who don’t happen to have older siblings in grad school, or who are not quite sure what they want to do, or who don’t have clear idea of what a job in industry or teaching would be like. Also, I truly enjoy meeting my advisees, getting to know them, and seeing how they progress through our program.
I find that this is an exciting time to be UPD because more and more students are choosing to major in physics. Also, the department and university are both working on assessing, expanding, and to some extent redirecting our advising programs. Some of these changes are invisible to students (better organization of data, for example), but others will, I think, make a difference to individual students.
Are there any new initiatives for the undergraduate program coming soon? How is UMass’s undergraduate physics program different from other programs or majors?
Yes, we have several new initiatives. For one thing, we recently doubled the number of faculty advisors to accommodate the increased number of majors. We are also starting new programs to give students timely advice about getting into research, applying for REUs, writing proposals for the department’s Chang endowed research award, applying for internships with companies, learning how to teach, preparing for the GRE exams, and applying to graduate programs or jobs. We are doing this with some new large-group advising sessions, GRE study sessions, and a series of visits to campus by physicists in industry, to name a few. Stay tuned!
I think that departments in the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) do an excellent job of advising overall. CNS and UMass Amherst as a whole have set up quite a lot of support for students who need advice, or who are in emotional of financial distress, or who are just stressed by coursework (which is quite common). There is a lot to be proud of here.