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In His Element

Jake Gray holds up catalyst in the lab.

By Mary Catherine Frantz, intern, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture

Jake Gray first discovered his love of research in high school physics class when his teacher challenged his students to predict the path of a marble rolling down a ramp.

He fondly remembers the simple experiment and the joy and elation when the marble hit its calculated target.

“It is so exciting to predict how the universe works,” he says.

A graduate student in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, Gray is now studying how and why a nickel catalyst in the presence of an electrical field is able to break down tightly bonded methane molecules. The research is important in industrial processes as a potential way to someday more easily convert methane waste into useful products.

“There are unsolved mysteries that I cannot let myself step away from,” Gray says.

Gray began the project as an undergraduate student, which required him to undertake a significant amount of learning.  He was fortunate to receive help from his mentor, associate professor Su Ha.

“Professor Ha strikes the right balance of direction and freedom,” Gray said. “He inspired me to explore and develop confidence as a researcher.”

Jake Gray and Su Ha.

Research can be difficult, in that there are often more failed trials than successes. But, Gray says, the failures can often be critically important.

“Admitting to the fact that you are wrong is one of the most difficult parts of research, but it’s not a bad thing,” he says. “There is a lot to learn from failure.”

When a big breakthrough  happens, Gray says, the feeling of exhilaration makes the entire process worth it.  New understanding creates more opportunities for discovery.

“Being able to find and predict future breakthroughs gives me the same excitement as the marble experiment did,” he says.

Ha is grateful to mentor Gray as he develops confidence as a researcher and encourages students to get involved with research in their undergraduate career.

“Research is the best opportunity on campus to learn outside of a textbook,” Ha said, “For Jake, there has been so much growth. It has made him more engaged in chemical engineering concepts and ignited his passion for the subject.”

Gray looks forward to continuing his research with help from a three-year fellowship from the National Science Foundation. He was among just 2,000 students chosen from more than 13,000 applicants to receive the award.

“Chemical engineering is unique in that you can combine elements and transform them into completely new things,” he says. “Research allows me to experience reactions on a hands-on level.”


In the past decade, the WSU Voiland School has become one of the nation’s top chemical engineering programs in catalysis, with high-impact research in transformational energy technologies. Learn more about research in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.

Brian Lamb Fund Established

Dagmar Cronn poses at the South Pole.

Dagmar Cronn was working at her first research job in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research at WSU when her mentor, Elmer Robinson, told her she could co-lead an important research project and would go to Antarctica to do it.

Afraid of the challenging conditions, she refused; she did not want to go to Antarctica. Robinson kindly threatened to fire her and told her that she had to bring a camera along to boot, which she also didn’t want to do.

“OK, I will donate my body to science. I will die of frostbite,” she told him.

Cronn went on to lead the project.

She endured survival school in an actual blizzard and didn’t freeze. She returned and spent 15 years as a scientist in the lab, traveling the world to take data from the Panama Canal to Malaysia, China, and Antarctica.

She fondly remembers the tremendous support, mentoring, and high expectations that helped her launch a successful career in academia.

To continue the long tradition of the lab’s supportive culture and to return the kindness to her, Cronn and her husband, Bob, have established the Brian Lamb Endowment for the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research.

The fund, named for longtime faculty member and regents professor Brian Lamb, will support graduate scholarships, equipment, and research grant matches. Lamb, a member of the Washington State Academy of Sciences, is a leading researcher in regional grid modeling of photochemical air quality and wind-blown dust, application of atmospheric tracer techniques, biogenic emissions, 3-D turbulence modeling, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Cronn came to WSU shortly after completing her doctorate in atmospheric chemistry. She soon realized that as a student, she had received little of the critical support and mentoring needed for a successful career.

“I had sort of persevered by accident,” she said.

Her supervisors at WSU immediately gave her a raise, making sure she was well paid. The salary was important, particularly, to raise her stature as a woman in science, she said.

During her time at WSU, her colleagues made her part of the LAR team, so that she worked collaboratively on proposals. The group shared its resources, so that everyone had access to equipment. Staff and graduate students were part of the integrated team. The only thing that Cronn struggled with was football pools, since she didn’t understand the game. Someone on the LAR team always managed the voting for her.

Dagmar Cronn working in the lab in Antarctica.
Dagmar Cronn conducted research with LAR all over the world, including in Antarctica.

“I was a part of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research — and, the ‘of’ is important,” she said. “In my education experience, I had been ‘in’ but not ‘of.’”

Her mentors pushed her to reach for new heights. They helped her with networking, introducing her to internationally known scientists around the world who were conducting research in areas such as acid rain and stratospheric ozone depletion. She soon became a well-connected member of these science communities, which was critical to  her success.

“You couldn’t get any better than that,” she said. “It was a really nice time in my life.”

And, when it came time to leave, her colleagues again supported her career. She remembers that President Sam Smith had become a mentor and advisor to her. He had nominated her for a fellowship and leadership training and had provided support for her to participate. He told her that if he couldn’t find an administrative position at WSU when she returned from her training, that he would help her find one elsewhere.

He kept his promise.

She went on to become dean of the College of Sciences at University of Maine and provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at the University of Oakland. She retired in 2007. Cronn hopes the new endowment will continue the collaborative and supportive spirit in the lab for many years to come and that others who benefited over the years will support it as well.

“I’ve always had the kind of relationship with WSU that people usually have with their alma mater,” she said. “I went off to other institutions over the years, but I always have had a soft spot for WSU.”


Support the Brian Lamb Endowment by giving online, or contact Bridget Pilcher at 509-335-0144 or pilcher@wsu.edu.