Montana State University

Spring 2016

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Mountains and Minds

Engineering a perfect fit May 10, 2016 by Sepp Jannotta • Published 05/10/16

When Abigail Richards landed at the Center for Biofilm Engineering in Montana State University’s College of Engineering, she was sure it was a temporary move.

It was 2002, and she had recently finished her masters in chemical engineering from Washington State University. Her mentor for her pending doctorate at WSU, Brent Peyton, would also later come to MSU on a visiting fellowship at CBE. Peyton would become a faculty member and director of MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute. Richards stayed at MSU in a visiting capacity to work through data on microorganisms she had collected in Soap Lake, Washington.

Though she was a visiting scholar working with another outsider, Richards said she felt right at home from the beginning. For one thing, the microbes she was studying thrived in an extreme environment, much like those discovered by MSU researchers in pools of highly acidic boiling water found in Yellowstone National Park.

“It was exciting to be at MSU because I wanted to expand my horizons, and I got to meet a whole new group of fabulous scientists and interdisciplinary thinkers in my field,” said Richards, who grew up in Washington. “That, tied together with my exposure to the Yellowstone thermal biology research that is so important at MSU, as well to as the whole community here, made it a great place for me.”

MSU was a good fit. So good that when a junior faculty position opened up in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Richards jumped.

The College of Engineering responded in kind, bringing her on as a tenure-track faculty member in 2007 and tapping the then 31-year-old Richards to teach the rigorous program’s entry-level courses and introduce students to the world of chemical engineering.

“After my initial experience, I just knew I really wanted to be here,” Richards said. “The work ethic of MSU students is really noticeable, and the faculty is a very supportive and special group of people.”

In the nine years since, Richards has helped transform the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering’s introductory level courses during a time of unprecedented growth in enrollment. When she started teaching, Richards said the freshmen-level course typically enrolled 40-some students. This past fall, Richards taught the introductory class to more than 170 students who had identified chemical and biological engineering as their desired major.

Jeff Heys, the head of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, said Richards’ enthusiasm and energy had been a driving force behind revamping the major’s introductory courses, as well as some senior-year lab courses. She also has been very active in recruiting students who are interested in attending MSU and pursuing the discipline.

Nowhere does she shine more than when she is walking students through their first steps toward a degree in chemical and biological engineering, Heys said.

“She’s worked really hard to turn that into a course that allows every incoming freshman to start off on the same footing and a course that gets them excited about the major,” Heys said. “We have a course now that does that, and she is largely responsible for creating it. On top of that, she wrote a book for the class because one didn’t exist.

“There are a lot of factors driving the growth in this department, but Abbie is certainly one of those factors—from her recruiting efforts to tremendous energy and excitement she brings to those intro courses,” Heys added.

The energy and devotion she brings to improving the student experience is a leading example of how a professor can be more than a person delivering a lecture, said Anne Camper, Montana University System Regents Professor, professor in the MSU Department of Civil Engineering, and associate dean for faculty and administration in the College of Engineering.

Richards is a generous and tireless mentor of students, and she brings out the best in her students, Camper said, pointing out that her mentees have gone on to win an array of awards, including the Marshall Scholarship (an MSU first), several Goldwater Scholarships, as well as National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships.

Her skills as an adviser earned Richards the national Tau Beta Pi Outstanding Adviser, in recognition of her dedication to mentoring students interested in engineering professions. Richards has helped coordinate student-led efforts such as the Engineering Ambassadors Program and Engineering Peer Advising Leaders project, both of which are aimed at raising retention and overall student success in the College of Engineering.

“She has always been one of those easily approachable people, and she’s really dedicated to what she does,” Camper said. “It’s part of what makes her an extraordinarily good teacher and role model.”

Luis DeSerrano, a doctoral graduate in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology who worked in Richards’ lab, said she shows incredible loyalty to her students.

“I think she never has no for an answer,” DeSerrano said. “Abbie guided me during my seven years of research. She takes time to explain and see that her students actually understand the concept that she’s trying to communicate.”

Beyond her love of seeing students gaining knowledge and experience in the classroom and lab settings, Richards said she finds great joy in helping students navigate the array of opportunities available beyond MSU’s walls.

“I love to know that they are being exposed to the possibilities that are out there, and that they are getting themselves in a position to succeed when they apply for that internship or grad program.”

As the daughter of an engineer and someone tightly enmeshed in the College of Engineering’s fabric, Richards acknowledges that it might come as surprise to some of her students and colleagues that she didn’t even know for certain she would major in engineering. An internship with Aera Energy was the big eye opener.

“I got to see how engineers worked together as a team and started each day with a meeting where they would map out the problems they would be working on,” Richards said. “My chemical engineering mentor at Aera was doing work that we didn’t specifically learn about in the classroom—it made me realize that there was more to being a chemical engineer than what’s covered during a four-year education.”

It was during the process of earning her doctorate and having the chance to teach a few classes that Richards realized her calling was in academia.

Both Camper and Sarah Codd, professor of mechanical engineering, said it is MSU’s great gain that Richards took that path.

“When I look at Abbie I see someone who is a perfect fit for MSU,” Codd said. “Not only because she brings such enthusiasm and work ethic, but also because we do some of our best thinking about work while riding the chairlift.” ■