Illuminating Alumni

Victory Flame Illuminating Alumni is a new feature for UNA to highlight outstanding and successful alumni! Along with being featured on our alumni website entries will be included in the Class Notes section of the UNA MagazineIf you would like to be considered for "Illuminating Alumni", please fill out the form here, and a representative will contact you for additional information. If you have questions, contact the Alumni Office at 256.765.4201 or 
Roar Lions!

David MacMillan '12                                                                                     

David MacMillan

Local filmmakers are bringing creationism’s controversy to life with their documentary “We Believe In Dinosaurs,” an exploration of the disagreements between the scientific and religious communities.

A group of Chicago filmmakers, 137 Films, has spent the last three years documenting the construction of the to-scale replica of Noah’s Ark at the Creation Museum in Williamstown, Kentucky, which is being built in support of creationism, the religious doctrine that disputes the theory of evolution.

The documentary features people across a spectrum of beliefs, including David MacMillan, who shared his path from a creationist to a believer of science. MacMillan said he grew up a creationist until earning a physics degree from the University of North Alabama, altering his perspective. 

“I held onto [creationism] for about as long as I could,” MacMillan said. “Over time, and being able to do better research, my familiarity with science grew, and I could see that there was no way to make [creationism] work.” 

MacMillan contends that the popularity of creationism is growing because it offers reassurance to its adherents. Instead of dismissing these beliefs, scientists should engage in dialogue with this community, he said.

“The scientific community needs to be more proactive about understanding creationist arguments,” MacMillan said. “Understanding where [creationists] are going to try and put wedges, where they’re going to try and cast doubt.”

I grew up a staunch creationist, and one of the reasons I pursued physics at UNA was that I wanted to be able to prove my religious beliefs. Thankfully, my education changed that. The documentary, which will be released soon, talks about religious creationism and its effect on science education. I'm one of the featured participants.
Here's a link to the Facebook page for the documentary:
Here's a link to a Columbia University article that mentions UNA:
And here's a link to the trailer and some more information:

Dr. Michelle Gabriel '10

Dr Michelle Gabriel

Congratulations to Michelle Gabriel, who successfully defended her doctoral thesis. Michelle’s research is based on developing techniques to understand the fundamental physics of nanomaterials for the advancement and rational design of new nanotechnologies. She has worked directly on the development of a new spatially-separated pump-probe microscope in the Papanikolas lab. With combined diffraction-limited spatial resolution and ultrafast temporal resolution, the microscope is capable of collecting data from individual nanostructures at various spatially distinct locations with a high throughput. Additionally, the microscope’s ability to excite an object in one location and probe it in another, allows the direct visualization of electron motion, thermal diffusion, and acoustic lattice vibrations on the nanoscale without the need of physical contact or active electrical connection. 

In a collaboration with the Cahoon group at UNC, Michelle has used the microscope to image electron diffusion in intrinsically doped silicon nanowires as well as image a combination of diffusion and drift in silicon nanowire devices with built-in electric fields. Additionally, to demonstrate the versatility of the microscope, she has applied it to the study of the insulator to metal transition and coherent acoustic phonon mode propagation along vanadium (IV) oxide (VO2) nanowires, a collaboration with Richard Haglund’s research group at Vanderbilt.

For her future work, Michelle has accepted a postdoctoral position with Professor John Boland at Trinity College Dublin’s leading nanoscience institute, the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices, CRANN, where she will work on the design and characterization of nanowire network materials and devices.

Dr. Dave Edwards '85

Dr. Dave Edwards

NASA’s Dave Edwards is counting down the days until July 19 when the Agency launches its High-Resolution Coronal Imager sounding rocket. The Hi-C reflight will capture finely tuned images of the sun’s atmosphere for about five minutes before plummeting back to Earth. It’s part of NASA’s mission to learn more about our sun and its impacts on our home planet.
Dr. Edwards, chief engineer in the Science and Technology Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, led the team of engineers that upgraded Hi-C’s specialized camera for its second flight in order to get it ready to see into the million-degree solar corona.
 “We discovered that the cooling plate that we had designed wasn’t functioning as well as it needed to,” said Edwards. “So our team built a new cooling plate that would actually keep the camera cool because it was going to generate heat and by staring into the sun, it was going to get a lot of heat, and the camera had to stay at a particular operating temperature.”
After a great deal of trial and error, Edwards’ team made the necessary changes, taking into account Hi-C’s mechanical stability and ensuring the proper amount of thermal contact is maintained.
“We’ve repaired the problem and now the team is out at White Sands assembling the rocket, preparing for launch,” said Edwards. “We’re really excited about that.”
That’s what chief engineers do. They tackle challenging problems. They find solutions. They make instruments work better.
While growing up in Florence, Alabama, Edwards was never far from the activities of Marshall. He remembers how his family used to travel to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville to see Ms. Baker, a squirrel monkey that was one of the first two animals launched into space by the United States and recovered alive.
Edwards has now held many different positions within the Agency, but his excitement about NASA and space exploration in general hasn’t faded.
In his daily activities, Edwards’ role is to support the Science and Technology Office, which includes keeping track of the activities and projects that are within their portfolio and keeping the engineering managers apprised of the current status of these projects.
“Within science and technology, it’s a very dynamic world,” said Edwards. “Things are going well one minute and challenging the next. It’s simply the nature of technology development – it moves at a very fast pace.”
After graduating from the University of North Alabama in Florence in 1985, Edwards moved to Auburn, Alabama, where he had been accepted into Auburn University’s graduate program in physics. Dr. John Williams, the professor who mentored him as a graduate student, was receiving an educational grant from NASA at the time to investigate the effects of atomic oxygen on materials.
One day, as Edwards visited Huntsville to give Marshall’s Materials and Processes Laboratory a status update on their research, he received a form from Dr. Ann Whitaker, Division Chief of the Engineering Physics Division.
“It was a standard form 171 – that’s how we used to do the applications. And I said, ‘Alright I’ll take it back and fill it out,’” said Edwards. “She said, ‘No, here’s a pencil, fill it out now.’ That’s how I came to work at Marshall Space Flight Center. Ann brought me on board to build a Space Environmental Effects test capability here.”
A few years later, following in the footsteps of Dr. Whitaker, Edwards completed a PhD in Materials Engineering through the Full-Time Study Program.
“I was not one of those kids who said ‘I’ve got to go to work at NASA,’” Edwards explained. “It was always something that was cool. And then when I had an opportunity to come work here and build my own laboratory – that was a dream come true.”
Edwards has a great appreciation for the numerous possibilities NASA provides.
“I don’t know of another organization on the planet that offers as much opportunity as NASA,” he said. “There is so much opportunity that is within this agency for those that are willing to pursue it.”
When asked for advice for people just starting out with NASA, Edwards explains that one of the lessons he has had to learn is that fear is a normal part of life.
“Everyone has some kind of fear, and we can take those fears and in our own mind, we can create giant monsters out of them,” he said. “In reality, things are never as bad as we imagine. Accepting that will enable you to stretch well outside of your comfort zone.”
Edwards and his team are currently working on maturing the technologies necessary to go to Mars. They are making sure the technologies evolve to a usable and reliable state when it comes time to employ them.
One of the main technologies they are concerned with is in-space manufacturing, which allows 3-D printers to create critical hardware and tools to perform maintenance.
“On a long duration mission, more than likely, crews are going to need spare parts. We don’t have a sack big enough to carry all the spare parts we might need. One way to combat that is in-space manufacturing.”
When he’s not fixing problems, Edwards enjoys hunting and fishing.
“We live in one of the richest areas in the world for hunting and fishing – the Tennessee River Valley,” he said. “Mostly, for me, it’s a vigorous walk in the woods or a morning out in a boat, which is a great way to spend a day.”
As for the goals of his office, Edwards says the single most important objective of the Chief Engineers Office is to ensure any project they work on is successful.
“Whatever success means for the mission, when we achieve that, the Chief Engineers Office did its job and lived up to the expectations everybody has of us.
The one technology that stands out the most for Edwards in terms of his enjoyment and interest is solar sail propulsion.
“It has its application, so I’m excited to see solar sail technology move into the realm where it can provide another useful propulsion system to the Agency,” he said.
Edwards continues to take great pride in what he does and the agency he works for.
“In the grand scheme of things, what we do here at NASA is just cool and we have absolutely won the lottery when you think about it,” he said. “We live in the greatest country on the planet, we work for the greatest organization that has been conceived by mankind, and we are enabling the future of space exploration at this very moment.”
Hi-C will launch on a NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 2:36 p.m. EDT, and travel on a parabolic trajectory for the duration of its flight. The Hi-C payload will land by parachute and be recovered. The Imager contains significant improvements in camera quality from its first flight in 2012, which captured the highest-resolution images ever taken of the sun’s corona.
Kimberly Newton
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
Molly Porter
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.