Growing up in the former Soviet Union, University of North Carolina at Greensboro nanoscience professor Dr. Joseph Starobin did not experience the same intellectual and political freedom he enjoys now. In fact, when Starobin and his classmates witnessed Natan Scharansky, a student several years ahead of them at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, be publicly expelled and later jailed for several years for expressing political views that did not jibe with those of the Communist Party, they realized the importance of keeping their mouths shut in public on the subject of politics.
“The students of physics, engineering and mathematics, we were the lucky people, because we were doing things outside of humanities,” Starobin said, citing the danger of more subjective fields of study. “If we wanted to learn something in humanities, we would rather do it on our own, or with friends in a very trusted circle.”
Since that time, Starobin has immigrated to the United States, become a professor in the University of North Carolina system and, with academic freedom now available to him, put special emphasis on thinking across disciplines and with an open mind.
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded Starobin the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award for UNCG. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC constituent institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of North Carolina’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, the country’s first public, residential high school for gifted students.
Starobin began teaching in UNCG’s physics department in 1997 and has served as an associate professor of nanoscience at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN), a joint degree program between UNCG and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, since the school’s founding in 2010.
Dr. James Ryan, JSNN’s founding dean, values Starobin’s ability to teach anyone, regardless of age or discipline. “I have seen him teach doctoral students, and I have seen him teach fifth graders,” Ryan said. “From a dean’s perspective, you’ve got professors who are really smart and sometimes when they teach, only other professors can understand, and then you have people like Dr. Starobin, who when they teach, even complicated stuff, the people they’re talking to understand. Though Dr. Starobin is quite a brilliant guy, when he teaches, regardless of audience, they learn.”
GAINING INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM
Starobin grew up in Moscow, Russia and felt drawn to physics and mathematics from a young age. After attending a special mathematical high school, he proceeded to Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology for college, where he studied applied mathematics. After receiving his degree, he continued on at the Institute, where he earned a master’s degree in mathematical physics in 1975, started his research career in biomedical physics and received a doctorate in the mechanics of fluids in 1982.
During the last three years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, it became obvious to Starobin that the Perestroika political movement for the reformation of the Communist Party was failing. In 1992 and at the age of 39, he and his family attained permission to immigrate to the United States. His wife, a medical doctor specializing in clinical microbiology, had landed a job with a company in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Ten months after immigrating, Starobin landed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Duke Medical Center. Four years later, he received a grant-funded research position in the physics department the University at North Carolina at Greensboro.
In his research, Starobin has long focused on applying theoretical, mathematical and computational physics to cardiovascular diseases — which he has continued while teaching in UNCG’s physics department. He is currently developing a tiny, non-invasive electrocardiographic device that can be worn in clothing to monitor heart activity continuously and provide an early warning of cardiac problems such as arrhythmias. He is also working on a method for restoring nerve impulses to injured tissues and studying the effects of various medications on the cognitive functions of the brain. His research is broadly published and protected by two US patents.
“Hopefully this will result in more control in smarter implementation of drugs and medicines,” he said of the latter project. “In order to predict the positive and negative outcomes, you need to understand the process that goes on in this medium.”
While physics represents a thru-line of his pre- and post-immigration life, he struggled at times with the transition to his adopted home. “Digesting the freedom is a process,” he said. “It took me a while before I got used to the new feeling.”
He appreciates that in the United States, he can share more of himself in his teaching. “When I’m teaching physics, I am a person. As a cultural unit, I’m not talking only about sharing an equation, I’m also sometimes talking about life, how I see things, how they are connected, how they will be developed in research and how discoveries will shape research policies — and not only research policies, but survival policies. In my previous experience, that was not encouraged. If I was to openly share my views, it could be dangerous for my family and me. That is a huge difference.”
ENERGY IN THE CLASSROOM
Because the nanoscience and nanoengineering school requires students to master four distinct subjects — physics, chemistry, biology and math — Starobin faces the challenge of simultaneously reaching students from very diverse backgrounds. He approaches the task by emphasizing the importance and application of skills that may not come naturally to people.
“You cannot give what you know to students without excitement,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s like you show something, everyone agrees, ‘This is right.’ And then what? Physics and math are not like the humanities, where there’s a lot of discussion. They need to pick it up, but they also need to be enthusiastic about the application of the knowledge in research.”
In the nanophysics class he has taught since 2011, for example, he introduces first manageable and then increasingly difficult problems and encourages the physics-minded students who can breeze through the work to help teach their biology- and chemistry-minded classmates. Additionally, when students solve difficult problems, he encourages them to not only explain their methods, but their thinking processes as well.
Rakkiyappan Chandran, who expects to earn his PhD in nanoscience from JSNN in the spring of 2017, took nanophysics with Starobin two years ago.
“I was nervous in the beginning,” said Chandran, whose background is in biology. But, he continued, “I never had a problem, because he helped me understand the steps really well — like why we need to link this equation with this material.” Chandran left Starobin’s class with the confidence to pursue topics that incorporated physics and chemistry as well as his specialty.
“Personally, he’s magnanimous,” Chandran said. “He gives time to students when they ask questions in the class and never says, ‘Meet me later.’ Even when I finished my proposal, he came up to me and my main advisor and asked how I did.”
Several years into the joint program, Starobin collaborated with an engineering professor Dr. Ajit Kelkar to develop an applied math course after realizing that students’ lack of math skills was holding them back. “Experimental biologists who study cells, if they don’t have a microscope, they can’t do anything,” Starobin said. “If you don’t have developed skills in math, you can’t understand advanced physics.” Since the course has been offered, students have better understood how to apply mathematical methods to science and engineering questions and have improved their performance on the qualifying exam for PhD program at JSNN.
For his work, Starobin has received the JSNN Teaching Excellence Award twice, in 2012 and 2014.
Starobin says he is proud to have been able to contribute to the establishment and maturation of the new joint program. “To see my students and the students of my colleagues graduate and become PhDs is a thrilling experience for me,” he said.
Dean Ryan said he is thrilled that Starobin is part of the new school. “His openness and creativity helps us work as a team within the school,” Ryan said. “It would be very easy to administer this school as just A&T and just UNCG, sort of parallel places. Without people like Joseph, it might end up being like that. But because we have people that can bridge the gap, it becomes a concerted effort, a truly interdisciplinary community.”
Story by Christina Cooke, Freelance Writer
Photos contributed by UNC Greensboro