The best education demands a joint search for learning between exciting instructors and able students. That self-evident principle lies at the core of a New College education.
Adherence to that principle explains why New College produces so many Fulbright and Goldwater scholars; why so many graduates go on to overachieve in careers in law, medicine, government, and the arts; and why, proportionately, more New College graduates subsequently receive doctorates in science than graduates of all but seven other institutions in the United States.
So what does that principle look like on the ground?
To cite just one example from the class that graduated in May, consider Matt Mancini. A Sarasota native, Mancini is pursuing his doctorate at Penn State University on an endowed research assistantship that pays tuition, fees, living expenses and a stipend in the lab of storied scientist John Mauro. (Google him!)
How did a Sarasota student wind up being paid to earn his doctorate with one of the nation’s most accomplished scientists, in the top-ranked research graduate program in materials science and engineering in the nation?
The answer: While at New College, Mancini worked with physics professor Mariana Sendova. A respected scientist with two United States patents and more than 80 research publications in refereed journals to her credit, Sendova had founded New College’s Optical Spectroscopy and Nanomaterials Lab in 2012 with a $1.7 million grant that she helped secure from the United States Army Research Laboratory.
As gifted an instructor as a physicist, Sendova gave Mancini the freedom to experiment in her lab, and worked with him to develop and refine his insights.
“Mariana’s door was always open any time I had a question. She is an experimentalist and that is very different from a theorist. Theorists marinate on a problem but experimentalists have to be willing to throw spaghetti, and we did,” Mancini said, resorting to the food metaphors with which he grew up (his family is in the restaurant business).
“When you’re doing that, you need somebody else to tell you, ‘That’s not even close to the wall’ or ‘That really hit.’ Your bad ideas get quickly thrown away and you get down to what’s really gold.”
Mancini and Sendova wrote a half dozen papers together.
“Matt graduated with two already published papers, one under review, and another three manuscripts almost ready to be submitted. Such a research record is truly exceptional, unheard of anywhere, nationwide,” Sendova said. “Matt received his B.A. in physics with more publications than a Ph.D. student.”
Their paper, “Direct Surface Area Measurement from Digital Images via Brightness Histogram Method” (published in July in the peer-reviewed journal Measurement Science and Technology), is on the patent track.
“We’ve developed an algorithm for efficient and ready measurement of surface area from 8-bit grayscale digital images, and we’ve discovered a new way to directly measure the surface area of large bodies of land or water,” Sendova and Mancini explained. “The reason this is worthwhile to patent is because this measurement helps researchers understand the depth and topography of, for example, lakes when they shrink, which is very helpful for scientists studying climate change.”
One month into the fall semester, Mancini is already planning to submit an invention disclosure to Penn State. He is researching the development of a lower-energy-cost soda-lime glass alternative to help reduce the carbon footprint of industrial glass manufacturing, and examining a two-dimensional germanium selenide glass matrix for photonics and optoelectronic applications.
Over time, relationships that begin as a joint search for learning between an instructor and student often mature into a genuine collaboration among equals. It is not unusual for alumni to remain in contact with their professors decades after graduation.
I have no doubt that Sendova and Mancini will be in touch for years, both pushing to extend our knowledge of new materials. I also have no doubt that, decades hence, the best education will continue to demand the engagement of two first-class minds: that of an exciting instructor and an able student.
New College, and our neighboring institutions in the Cross College Alliance, expect to continue to offer our students that engagement.
Donal O’Shea is president of Sarasota’s New College of Florida.