Day: September 29, 2020

From the Desk of the Dean

Gloria Caddell, Ph. D.

Dear CMS Alumni and Friends,

We have had some changes in the Dean’s Office this year.  Dr. Wei Chen resigned as Dean this past summer in order to accept an endowed chair position in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oklahoma. I thank Dr. Chen for his many contributions during his five years as Dean of the College of Mathematics and Science.  We miss him, but we are happy that his energy can now be directed full time toward his passion to cure late-stage metastatic cancer.  I have accepted the Interim Dean position in the college while a search is conducted for a new dean, and Dr. Bob Brennan is the new Interim Associate Dean.  I am immensely thankful to him for taking on this new role.  I also thank Dr. Jesse Byrne and Dr. Evan Lemley for continuing in their roles as Assistant Deans.

As we began this fall semester, our outstanding faculty once again were recognized for their achievements and leadership.  At the Convocation in August, they received the following awards:

  • Sean Laverty from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics was a recipient of the Neely Excellence in Teaching Award.
  • The Vanderford Research Award went to Dr. Tracy Morris from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and the Vanderford Initiative Award went to Nancy Gwin from the Department of Nursing.
  • Connie Harris from the Department of Nursing was a recipient, along with other members of the Grand Rounds: Experience in Interprofessional Practice group, of the Masonic Endowment for Transformative Learning Award.
  • UCO’s COVID-19 Task Force, which includes Dr. Pam Rollins from the Department of Nursing and Dr. Bob Brennan, Interim Associate Dean of CMS, was recognized by the Citizen’s Bank Leadership and Civic Engagement Award.
  • Two faculty received Merit Credit Awards in the area of Research: Dr. Sanjeewa Gamagedara from the Department of Chemistry and Dr. Jicheng Fu from the Department of Computer Science. Dr. Kristin Karber from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics received a Merit Credit Award in the area of Teaching.

At our CMS Back-to-School Meeting, Dr. Tierney Harvey from the Department of Engineering and Physics received the CMS Vanderford Teaching Award.

I hope all of you and your families are doing well during this challenging time. There have been many changes in the College of Math and Science for this semester, but we are trying our best to maintain a sense of normalcy as well as our values and our commitment to academic excellence, transformative learning, and student success.  We are offering face-to-face classes with reduced capacity, and most lecture sections have an extended section in which students attend classes virtually but synchronously.  To make this possible, the necessary technology was added to most of our classrooms this summer. I want to acknowledge the efforts of the deans, chairs, and the college staff to help us prepare for the semester, and particularly the efforts of the faculty to learn the technology and prepare for the challenges of delivering their classes in entirely new formats. Lab classes are face-to-face, research labs are open, and students have been able to continue their field research.  Our students have been incredibly understanding of, and compliant with, our mask, disinfection, and physical distancing policies.

In early February, I went to the Big Island of Hawaii just before we realized that the coronavirus was beginning to spread in the U.S.  As I reflect on that trip, I often think about the lava flows I hiked across and the volcanic craters I hiked through.  I’m sure many of you have been to Hawaii and have seen the vast miles of a’a lava from volcanoes that erupted many decades ago, or have hiked across the floor of a crater.  A’a lava is particularly treacherous; it is rough, sharp, and very jagged.  It is hard to get your footing, and if you fall, your skin can literally be shredded.  I admit that as difficult as it is to hike over a’a lava, I have said more than a few times since then that I would rather hike barefoot for miles across a’a lava than be dealing with what we are encountering during this pandemic!  But as you hike across the barren a’a lava landscape, the life that was destroyed is being replaced within and around stunningly beautiful pools of water filled with golden algae and surrounded by plants adapted to the harsh conditions. Likewise, if you hike into a volcanic crater, you see plants such as the ohi’a tree becoming established on the lava, and beautiful miniature gardens of ferns and other plants nestled in cracks.  You see tiny blueberry plants in flower, whose fruits support the endangered nene or Hawaiian goose. These plants are surviving and producing flowers and fruits.

Given time, the a’a lava will be covered with plants, and a forest will grow up in this crater.  However, at this point, life is hard on the a’a lava and on the floor of this crater, just as our lives are hard because of the pandemic.  Life as we knew it at UCO in February has drastically changed. But I think of our faculty and staff like the plants taking hold and thriving on the harsh landscapes of the Big Island of Hawaii. I know we will adapt, grow, succeed, and thrive in this new pandemic landscape if we all work together.  With all we have learned during this time I suspect our landscape might not look like it did before, but I am certain that we will continue to engage and transform our students and prepare them well for their careers and for professional and graduate schools. In the meantime, we have plans and dreams for the college that we will keep alive and move forward – new programs and degrees to propose, labs to remodel, and other initiatives to explore.

On behalf of the faculty, staff, and students, I thank you for your continued confidence in and support of our college.

Gloria Caddell, Ph.D.

Interim Dean, College of Mathematics and Science


Biology’s New Ichthyologist: Dr. Andrew Taylor

Dr. Andrew Taylor

Dr. Taylor with a native Neosho Smallmouth Bass from the Baron Fork near Tahlequah, OK. This subspecies of Smallmouth Bass is only found in the Ozarks ecoregion.

Dr. Andrew Taylor is in his second year as an Assistant Professor within the Biology Department. With a background in fisheries biology and management, Dr. Taylor’s research focuses on the conservation of native fish biodiversity within riverscapes, the effects of non-native and invasive fishes, and the management and conservation of native black bass (Micropterus spp.) diversity. Since arriving at UCO, Dr. Taylor has been busy teaching Diversity for Majors, General Biology, Vertebrate Zoology, and developing the first comprehensive Ichthyology course offered at UCO. Dr. Taylor is also curating the UCO Museum of Natural History’s Ichthyology Collection and developing plans to integrate these collections into research efforts on campus and abroad.

“The Taylor Fish Lab” has started several local research projects that allow students opportunities to gain valuable field experience, including monitoring stream fish community change in Chisholm Creek and revisiting the taxonomic descriptions of Smallmouth Bass in Oklahoma’s Ozark and Ouachita mountains ecoregions. The lab anticipates beginning a large-scale survey for a state-listed minnow species in summer 2021 with the support of an external grant with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s State Wildlife Grant program, in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Dr. Andrew Taylor and Group

Dr. Taylor discussing fish identification while seining a local pond with his Ichthyology students.

Dr. Taylor is always looking for motivated students with an interest in fish or aquatic habitats to join the lab! You can follow along with his lab’s adventures on Twitter (@TaylorFishLab1) or at his lab’s website


Biology Student Spotlight: Briant Nguyen

Briant Nguyen

Briant showing off an unexpected logperch sampled from Chisholm Creek during his research.

Briant Nguyen is a senior at UCO and will be earning his B.S. degree at the end of the Fall 2020 semester. Briant came into UCO with a particular interest and curiosity about fish and fishing. Briant has been working within the UCO Natural History Museum for a year, lending his eye for fish to help identify and accession fish into the Ichthyology Collection. To date, over 1,400 fish have been added to the collection.

Briant began working alongside Dr. Taylor in Fall 2019, devising a study to examine changes in local stream fish communities in relation to land-use changes. Briant has worked closely with state agencies and universities to obtain historical data collections, and he is pairing these collections with some of his own data collections in Chisholm, Deer, and Cottonwood creeks. The ultimate goal of this study is to quantify fish community changes over time and identify potential anthropogenic drivers.

Over the summer of 2020, Briant served in a paid internship with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Stream Survey program. Briant was able to travel across our great state while learning different methods used to sample fish, how to collect environmental data, and how to identify many of Oklahoma’s native fishes.

Briant plans to continue his ichthyological studies at UCO by pursuing an M.S. degree in biology. Alongside co-PI’s Dr. Taylor and Dr. Butler, Briant will focus on estimating native stream fish distributions in Oklahoma.

Chemistry Faculty Spotlight: Stephanie (Skiles) Jones

Stephanie Skiles Jones

Stephanie (Skiles) Jones is in her third year of a tenure-track appointment in the UCO Department of Chemistry. Prior to the tenure-track position, she served in a series of one-year positions at UCO, so she is at the start of her sixth year as a full-time faculty member at UCO. Stephanie came to UCO from Texas A&M, where she earned her Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry and then taught a large-enrollment lecture for a year. Prior to that, she earned Bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Chemistry from Wayland Baptist University in Texas. Stephanie likens chemistry to a logic puzzle, although she also likes that while it can answer some questions, it always leads to more questions.

Over her 11 semesters at UCO, Stephanie has taught lecture and lab courses in Introductory Chemistry (for Allied Health majors), General Chemistry (for science majors), as well as courses for chemistry majors. Stephanie enjoys teaching at UCO for a number of reasons. The smaller class sizes allow for more interactions with her students, and UCO encourages faculty to work at developing and refining their teaching. She enjoys the opportunity to mentor students in their capstone projects as they get closer to graduation, as this gives her a chance to see the development of students throughout their undergraduate years. Her research projects have included collaborations using TLC as a tool to identify lichens, and using various chemical and instrumental techniques to identify types of wild grasses.

Outside of work, Stephanie enjoys baking, which she claims is just chemistry with sugar. Having just gotten married, Stephanie is also in the process of merging two households into one.


Computer Science New Faculty Member: Dr. Junghwan (John) Rhee

John RheeDr. Junghwan (John) Rhee joined the computer science faculty as a tenure-track associate professor in Fall 2020. Dr. Rhee holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Purdue University. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Korea University and a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the University of Central Oklahoma, Dr. Rhee had worked at NEC Laboratories America in Princeton, New Jersey, for nine years as a senior researcher and security team leader. Dr. Rhee is an expert in cybersecurity with research interests in systems security and reliability. He has a number of peer-reviewed publications as well as patents in the security area. With Dr. Rhee’s expertise, we look forward to more program and course offerings in the area of cybersecurity in the near future.

Computer Science Student Spotlight: Derrick Lau

Derrick LauMy name is Chi San (Derrick) Lau. I’m from Macau and currently a second-year graduate student. Actually, I’ve already been studying at UCO for three years because my undergraduate degree was not Computer Science (CS): I hold a Bachelor of Law! With no prior knowledge in programming, I had to complete prerequisite courses first. I’m very grateful that UCO provided me with this invaluable opportunity to explore a brand-new path. Professors here helped me tremendously and taught me a lot, as otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to come this far so smoothly.

My friends thought I got good grades because I’m smart, but that’s not true. My life is also full of frustrations and challenges. I constantly found myself unable to understand what the professors were teaching during classes. What I could do was to spend twice the time as other people to review and study the topics after class. Hence, I think the most difficult part is to overcome my frustrations because life will not become easier no matter how frustrated or sad I feel. What I need to do is to confront these challenges and keep pursuing my dream in CS.

Dr. Jicheng Fu (Derrick’s research advisor): Mr. Derrick Lau is an intelligent, motivated, and industrious young man who constantly surprised me by his outstanding work. Derrick caught my attention when he took my Software Engineering I class. Being hard-working, he demonstrated the capability to use learned knowledge to solve challenging problems. While many students utilized an existing platform, which partially satisfied the requirements of the course project, Derrick developed his own solution, which fulfilled all the requirements. In my research team, Derrick has been willing to undertake challenging research problems. He is currently developing a self-learning AI planning system, which utilizes cutting-edge techniques, such as deep learning and reinforcement learning, to make self-learning possible. I am excited to see him make progress in research and build a solid foundation for his future career development.