UConn Chemistry Welcomes Three New Faculty

By Gabriella Reggiano

This semester, the UConn Chemistry Department welcomed three new Assistant Professors. Click on the photos below to learn more about them and their visions for the future!

Tomoyasu Mani
Rebecca Quardokus
Gael Ung

Meet Tomoyasu Mani

After earning a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Tomoyasu Mani became a Goldhaber Fellow in the Chemistry Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He is ecstatic to begin running his own lab and testing his own hypotheses about photo induced and radiation induced chemical reactions. His lab will concentrate on improving the efficiency of energy technology by understanding the mechanisms behind these reactions. Dr. Mani emphasizes the importance of his research: “Energy is vital in our lives. Without photosynthesis, we’re not here…and, like photosynthesis, we would like to develop an efficient way to convert energy from photons into useful and usable forms of energy such as electricity. To do that, we need to understand the basic principles, what’s controlling this photo induced chemical reaction, such as charge and energy transport.” To address these questions, Dr. Mani combines various approaches including chemical synthesis, ultrafast laser spectroscopy, and theoretical/computational analysis.

As someone who had extensive research experience as an undergraduate, Dr. Mani recognizes the importance of getting started early on. “I highly value the independent thinker, meaning the people who create their own ideas and then test them…Students have a lot of materials to cover and a lot of materials to memorize, but I truly love for students to think on their own, and then find an interesting problem and come up with [their] own solution. In the real world, it’s highly desirable for you to come up with your own idea and then pursue it.”

Dr. Mani incorporates this emphasis on problem solving into his teaching as well. In his graduate course this semester, he wants to cultivate “a chemical intuition” in his students. “Students often get trapped in the equations and all the calculations…but that’s not so critically important.” He described the objective for the graduate students in his advanced physical chemistry course: “Rather, I would like them to understand why we need to solve that equation, why we need to derive the equations; those are the concepts and the ‘chemical intuition’ I would like them to develop.”

Next semester, Dr. Mani will be tackling the physical chemistry laboratory courses for undergraduates. Although he will not be instructing the physical chemistry lecture at the same time, he still wants his students to concentrate on concepts in addition to their hands-on work. Dr. Mani will emphasize the connection of their experiments to the theoretical work they have completed in the lecture. Moreover, he wants to compare the techniques covered in the lab to more modern techniques: “Those experiments [in the course] are very basic and some of them are not being actively used in the research settings right now…I would like to bridge the gap between the old techniques and the newer techniques.”

Dr. Mani is eager to join a transforming chemistry department. “UConn is a very well-respected institution; and especially in chemistry, it’s been aggressive in recruiting new people.” Dr. Mani described the importance of an expanding department: “You need to bring in new professors and bring new ideas, and that’s what this department of chemistry has been doing for the past couple years…The growing part is really attractive.”

Dr. Mani hopes that his research–and the lasers he is going to install–will draw graduate and undergraduate students into his lab. He encourages students to come by his office, whether they are looking for research opportunities or additional guidance.

Learn more about the Mani Research Group

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Meet Rebecca Quardokus

Like many of the students currently enrolled in her CHEM 1127 course, Dr. Rebecca Quardokus did not originally plan to pursue a degree in chemistry. She began her studies as a pre-dental student, but after she took organic chemistry and began pursuing research and industrial opportunities, she chose chemistry as a career path. “When I was picking my profession, I was just sort of thinking of what I could see in my little small town in Michigan; okay, you can be a doctor, a teacher, or a secretary…I didn’t realize that you could move atoms around for a living.”

Because Dr. Quardokus empathizes with her general chemistry students, she wants to generate an interest in the course, despite their diverse academic pursuits. “Even if [chemistry] is not what you’re going into, just understanding everything that is out there research-wise, because there’s so many different avenues to take…I want people to not be intimidated by chemistry and be excited by it.”

Although she is instructing an entry-level course, Dr. Quardokus teaches with research in the back of her mind. “What’s really important to me is that students can be problem solvers, can take the material, internalize it and own it so that they can approach a problem they’ve never seen before and know where to start and how to solve it.” To ensure her students are forward-thinking, Dr. Quardokus incorporates active learning in her lectures; she invites her class to take on problems individually before discussing with their neighbors and then coming together as a class. She recognizes that these skills are essential to their growth as scientists. “To be a good chemist, you need to be able to look at a problem and know how to tackle it.”

It is clear by the way she speaks about her research that Dr. Quardokus is enthusiastic about the physical chemistry and materials work her laboratory will be doing. Using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and an atomic force microscope (AFM), members of her laboratory will be engineering Next Generation (NextGen) electronics, improving energy and cost efficiency of computer components. These microscopes allow the group to image atoms, electron densities and reaction mechanisms, but Dr. Quardokus points out that they are capable of even more that. “Not only can you see [atoms], but you can drag them around and spell things out. One of the things I want to do is spell UConn in atoms.”

As a postdoctorate recipient of the GK-12 fellowship through the National Science Foundation, Dr. Quardokus taught week-long nanotechnology courses to K-12 students. Dr. Quardokus discovered a love for teaching in addition to her research, and it was the combination of the two that influenced her decision to join the University of Connecticut Chemistry Department. “It has a great reputation as a research and teaching school. When I was describing my perfect job, I said I love to do world class research, but I also really like teaching. So I wanted somewhere that valued both of those things, and I think that is the environment I’ve found here at UConn.”

Dr. Quardokus is actively recruiting graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in nanotechnology and NextGen electronics to work in her lab. She also emphasizes her open door policy: as someone with experience in industry, government and academia, she would love to speak with students and offer advice about their own career paths.

Learn more about the Quardokus Research Group

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Meet Gaël Ung

Dr. Gaël Ung decided chemistry was for him once he began seriously studying the sciences; he grasped the concepts easily and found that the subject felt very natural to him. After deciding to pursue chemistry, Dr. Ung moved quite a bit. He began in Paris, France, where he earned an engineering degree as well as a master’s degree in organic and bioorganic chemistry. Dr. Ung relocated to the US to earn his Ph.D. at University of California-San Diego, working on the synthesis of mesoionic carbenes. He then moved to the California Institute of Technology as a postdoctorate to study low-coordinate iron and cobalt complexes.

The unusual organic and inorganic work Dr. Ung completed as a graduate student and as a postdoctorate inspires and informs his research. His group focuses on the synthesis of small-to-medium sized molecules that challenge the rules of your textbook organic chemistry. “We’re looking at medicinal, photochemical and energy applications…You want to make cool stuff but you also want it to be useful.”

Despite the looming threat of Connecticut winters, Dr. Ung is very excited to join the Department of Chemistry faculty here at the University of Connecticut. “I like the fact that it’s very young. We have seven or eight assistant professors who are all very motivated, but there are also established professors that you can go and talk to.” Dr. Ung describes the dynamic he found among the professors: “I also got a very good sense of the interaction between the faculty and the students. It’s very close, not at all like a gigantic research factory.”

Dr. Ung is currently teaching one graduate course of about 12 students. The small size allows him to run the course like a workshop, laying out definitions and concepts on the board and giving the students time to solve problems and ask questions during class. He recognizes that graduate students are often primarily concerned with their research and wants to ensure they do not spend a disproportionate amount of time on homework problems.

Next semester, Dr. Ung will be teaching CHEM 2443, an organic chemistry lecture previously taught by Professor Michael Smith. Although the class will be significantly larger than his current graduate course, he plans to implement similar teaching strategies. “I still want to run it like a workshop, but there are more materials and details for undergraduates to cover. And in a lecture that big, I can’t walk around as much.” Regardless of this challenge, Dr. Ung still hopes his students will have a more hands-on experience in his lecture. “I want them to try problems before they go home, so they have an idea when they are doing work outside of the class.”

When asked to describe what he was most excited for, Dr. Ung immediately spoke about mentoring and teaching. “I like explaining things, to see a student go from not understanding, to see that click and watch them start solving problems.” In his own lab, Dr. Ung is anxious to begin mentoring students. As a postdoc, he never trained students from start to finish. “I’m excited to see how students will evolve in how they do their science. I want to have an impact on their growth…I haven’t taught the basics from A to Z.”

Dr. Ung is currently looking for one or two graduate students from a variety of levels and backgrounds who can start a discussion in the laboratory.

Learn more about the Ung Research Group

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