Department News

Ignacio Franco is the 2021 recipient of the College Award for Undergraduate Teaching and Research Mentorship

April 15, 2021

franco.jpg Research requires “a whole different set of skills to be successful versus being successful in the classroom,” says Ignacio Franco, an associate professor of chemistry and the Leonard Mandel Faculty Fellow at the University of Rochester. “When you’re doing classwork, you typically know that the problems you’re given are solvable. When you’re doing research, you’re in unchartered territory.”

Assisting undergraduate students in formulating research questions and helping them recognize the need to pivot through “unchartered territory,” are hallmarks of Franco’s teaching and mentorship and just a few of the reasons he was named this year’s recipient of the College Award for Undergraduate Teaching and Research Mentorship.

The award, funded by chemistry alumnus Frederick Lewis ’68 (PhD) and his wife, Susan Rice Lewis, honors Arts, Sciences & Engineering tenured faculty members who teach large, introductory classes as well as advanced seminars and independent study projects, and who mentor research experiences, especially those that involve laboratory training in the sciences and engineering.

“Since he came to Rochester, Ignacio has been transforming the way undergraduate students learn physical chemistry,” says Todd Krauss, a professor of chemistry and of optics and chair of the Department of Chemistry. He notes that Franco introduces current quantum mechanical research problems and computational demonstrations to his quantum mechanics students and has developed a set of original lecture modules that connect class topics with recent publications and real-world problems.

“The result is a class that combines the collective, historical experience of the Chemistry Department with respect to peer-led learning, state-of-the-art research in the teaching of quantum mechanics, and close connections with the current literature. Ignacio’s commitment to and excellence in teaching places him in extremely rare company.”

A passion for chemistry

Franco was born in Bogotá, Colombia, to a family of educators.

“I grew up in a country where science was still young, so I understand very well the impact of that first opportunity to conduct science,” he says.

He joined the Rochester faculty in 2013, where his own research focuses on theoretical chemistry; in particular, he investigates how matter and molecules move at the quantum level. One project in his lab involves using strong laser light to shake matter out of thermal equilibrium and create new, “laser-dressed” materials with unique electronic properties.

“Matter can behave very differently when it’s laser dressed,” Franco says. “Insulators can become conductors. Transparent materials can become opaque. Even glass can be made to behave to a material akin to a metal for a short period of time.”

Controlling matter at the level of electrons using lasers is also the basis for developing ultrafast electronics, imaging, and other technologies.

“Right now, one of the greatest challenges for us as scientists and engineers is to harness the quantum features of matter to fuel the next technological revolution,” Franco says.

During his time at Rochester, he has supervised the research of 10 undergraduate students, including, most recently, optics major Garrett Beals ’21, who is working with Franco on using laser light to control the movement of electrons on an ultrafast timescale.

Beals calls Franco “the best mentor I have ever had,” noting that Franco always takes time to check in with students and genuinely listens to them, providing extra help for students struggling with the notoriously hard-to-grasp concepts of quantum mechanics.

“My fellow peers and I agree that Physical Chemistry is our favorite class, solely because of Professor Franco,” Beals says. “Teaching an intro quantum mechanics course is normally extremely challenging due to the mathematical difficulty and hard-to-grasp concepts. This is why it is all the more impressive that Professor Franco was able to cover concepts from fundamental principles and the history of quantum mechanics all the way to modern-day computational calculations, where he actually got students licenses on the computational server to do these calculations ourselves.”

But it is Franco’s passion for chemistry that is truly an inspiration.

“One of Professor Franco’s greatest strengths is his ability to encourage and excite students about physical chemistry and STEM as a whole,” Beals says. “I changed my research interests completely when taking his class after hearing him explain his research at this interdisciplinary field between optics and physical chemistry that has a large potential for applications and exciting challenging problems to be solved.”

Mentoring international undergrads

Recognizing the importance of global scholarship and exchange, in 2015, Franco developed the i-Scholar program, a research program that invites international undergraduate students studying chemistry to Rochester for 10 weeks in the summer. Through the program, the Department of Chemistry has influenced the education of 30 undergraduate students from countries around the globe by offering opportunities to do first-class research at Rochester.

Franco says undergraduate research experiences allow students not only to build their presentation and writing skills and enhance their resumes for graduate school and beyond; they also allow them to contribute to the larger scientific enterprise.

“Being involved in research is a big differentiating factor between a research-oriented university like the University of Rochester and other universities,” Franco says. “Research requires being comfortable when standing in an intellectual place where nobody has ever been. It’s very exciting when you create something new—when you understand something no one else in the world understands—and can contribute to scientific knowledge.”

Undergraduate Research Expo, April 16

The College Award for Undergraduate Teaching and Research Mentorship is presented in conjunction with the University’s annual Undergraduate Research Expo, which will be held as a virtual event this year, beginning Friday, April 16.

The event showcases student research projects spanning engineering and mathematics, humanities and performance, natural sciences, social sciences, and community engagement.

Throughout the day, students will present their findings via Zoom, while posters will remain accessible online for one year. Awards for undergraduate research in the humanities, engineering, natural sciences, and social sciences will be presented, along with the Students’ Association Professors of the Year Award, on Monday, April 19. The events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit the Office of Undergraduate Research’s Expo page.

Virtual Undergrad Teaching & Research Mentorship Award Ceremony,
hosted by Dean Runner on April 14 at 4:00 pm. 

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