Though it’s not mentioned as often as teaching or research, service is an important part of the faculty job description. And despite its relatively low profile, professors take this aspect of their work seriously. Case in point: Debora Rodrigues, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, who has mentored high school students in her lab regularly since arriving at UH in 2010.
The most recent student, Avanthika Gopal, graduates this month from William B. Travis High School in Richmond, Tex. She joined Rodrigues’ lab at the beginning of the spring semester through the Fort Bend Independent School District’s Gifted and Talented Mentorship Program, which offers a research-based course to the district’s highest-achieving students.
Gopal, who is interested in the topic of water purification, was conducting a literature review on the topic when she first learned of Rodrigues’ work in the field. “I was reviewing research papers and Dr. Rodrigues’ name came up in one of the papers I read,” said Gopal. “So I looked her up. It was so amazing that she was a professor at University of Houston.”
The director of the mentorship program then contacted Rodrigues about having Gopal join her lab. For Rodrigues, who has mentored high school students every summer since joining UH, it was an easy call.
Over the course of the semester, Gopal contributed to the development of a polymer-based film that removes excess lead from wastewater. “I learned so many things that I’ll take with me in college,” said Gopal, who plans to study chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “I learned how to operate software, I learned methodology. I think professors will appreciate that I’ve had this experience, and that will be a good edge when trying to get into their research programs.”
Notably, during the semester much of Gopal’s day-to-day mentoring was handled by one of Rodrigues’ graduate students, Ruji Medina with Rodrigues overseeing their weekly activities. This, said Rodrigues, was by design. Many students pursing a doctorate want to become professors themselves. By having graduate students take the lead mentor role, they get valuable experience teaching concepts, overseeing lab work and closely guiding the efforts of a less experienced researcher.
While Gopal has moved on from this research project, Rodrigues’ mentorship efforts continue. During the summer, two new high school students will take on research positions in her lab.
“I’m a professor, therefore, teaching is for all levels, not only graduate students and undergraduates,” she said. “It’s a way of contributing to society and making these students aware of all the possibilities available to them. I believe you need to engage them in research as early as possible, so you can develop their passion in research and generate excitement about higher education in engineering. With this activity, I also hope to be able to generate in high school students enough excitement about pursuing graduate school. That’s my final goal.”