"I didn't know whether I wanted to be an architect, a lawyer, or an engineer," said Al Crosby, a researcher at the Polymer Science and Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts -- Amherst. "That's why I went to a school where I could study a bunch of different things."
Crosby, the co-developer of a powerful new adhesive called Geckskin, shared his professional history Wednesday with HCC's first cohort of STEM scholars at a special program during which students were treated to lunch, a private lecture, and an exploration of his groundbreaking invention.
Just a few of the perks of being a STEM scholar at Holyoke Community College.
The 12 STEM scholars are the first to benefit from a five-year, $625,000 grant from the National Science Foundation HCC received earlier this year. The grant enables HCC to award scholarships of up to $10,000 a year to qualifying students majoring in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math.
The second round of the NSF S-STEM Scholarship program is now under way. The application deadline is December 15.
From a job working the night shift at a restaurant to creating Geckskin, one of the world's strongest adhesive products, Crosby traced the path that had led him to polymer science -- the study of synthetic chemical compounds, like plastics.
"How did you figure out what you wanted to study in grad school?" asked Jessica Aduwo, a biology major at HCC, asked Crosby, a first-generation college student.
"I focused on trying to find people," Crosby said. "You want to find people who do things you're interested in, not departments."
As a college student, Crosby applied for a teaching assistant job that he wasn't qualified for, he said, but then landed a research position with the material sciences professor who would inspire his career choices.
"It was his mentoring that really changed my direction," Crosby said. "That changed my life."
UMass grad student and PhD candidate Michael Imburgia, a member of the research group headed by Crosby, also spoke during the seminar, noting the unusual source of his interest in the study of fractured materials.
"I used to work in landscaping, and we cleaned out old buildings," he said. "That involved breaking a lot of glass in dumpsters."
Following the discussion, Crosby invited students to explore Geckskin -- a product developed after studying the adhesive properties of the tokay gecko -- and other polymers.
Students crowded around a table at the front of the classroom, waiting their turn to stick Geckskin to the table surface, and to query Crosby further about graduate school.
He invited students to apply for two internships with his team open exclusively to STEM Scholars from HCC -- another program perk -- working on research into cavitation and puncture, and, potentially, launching a promising career in science.
PHOTOS by HANNAH WAREHAM: (Left) UMass researcher Al Crosby talks to STEM scholars at HCC. (Right) HCC STEM scholar Frances Rivera-Diaz, right, checks out an new adhesive product called Geckskin developed by scientists at UMass.