Resource Magazine — July/August 2014
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A professor’s broad perspective
William Kissalita

ASABE member William S. Kisaalita, professor and graduate coordinator at the University of Georgia (UGA), has developed research activities and international service-learning projects that have engaged students in helping to solve real-world problems. As noted in the previous issue of Resource, he recently received a $1 million grant to continue work on an evaporative milk cooler designed to help dairy farmers who lack access to refrigeration, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa. Recently, Kisaalita was named UGA’s Instructor of the Year and received a teaching award for his “First-Year Odyssey” class for incoming freshmen.

Q. Where did you earn your degrees?

A. I earned a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a BS in mechanical engineering from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Q. What are your current responsibilities at UGA?

A. I am a professor of engineering with research responsibilities in two areas: Base of the Pyramid (BoP) technology development done with undergraduate students, and cell-based biosensors with applications in drug discovery. I was recently appointed associate director of the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO), with responsibilities for working directly with colleges, departments, and faculty to promote the expansion of CURO to all students interested in undergraduate research. I also work as a faculty mentor for students involved in the Peach State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation.

Q. What brought you to UGA?

A. I came to UGA in 1991 to do research, help develop the biological engineering curriculum, and teach biological engineering courses. We had an option to go out west, but the starter housing prices at the time in California made the decision to come to Georgia a bit easier. I thought I would get my career started here and make a move after five years or so, but 20 years later we are still here and enjoying our stay!

Q. What are your favorite courses taught, and why?

A. I have taught many courses at UGA. My most cherished experiences with students have been in engineering design project courses involving global service-learning and the companion summer research programs overseas that I developed. I get to know the students I travel with very well, and they get to know me very well. Watching in real-time and being part of these transformational experiences with the students is priceless.

Q. What interests you about your field?

A. For the work I do with undergraduates, I am most pleased with its “two-way street” nature. While it takes the students out of their comfort zone, it provides real-world solutions to the problems of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid and enhances their earnings in a sustainable way. This approach—involving the development and deployment of simple technologies that are profitable for all those involved in the distribution chain—has been referred to by some as “social entrepreneurship.” The profitable nature of entities built around the technology makes it easily scalable to other countries, reaching a wider population base. I am drawn to such activities.

For the bioengineering work, I am particularly drawn to answering fundamental questions that may lead to a practical value. For example, we are investigating how to create microenvironments in vitro that support cells to grow and mature like they do in the human body, so we can use them to lower the cost of discovering new drugs.

Q. How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching? And can you describe your ideal student?

A. These two questions go well together for me. Research in its simplest form is like putting together a complex picture puzzle. You can try different pieces to see if they fit, and if you get enough put together, the true picture begins to emerge. I find this mindset very helpful in my teaching. The students and I “try different pieces” until they get it.

It is difficult to answer the ideal student question. It is like beauty—you know it when you see it. If I am forced to think about it, my ideal student is one who is not afraid to ask a “stupid” question that may turn out to be the “puzzle piece” that unlocks the class’s trajectory to the “picture.” One who is not afraid to fail—failure is an integral part of success. One who does not hesitate to engage in meaningful out-of-the-classroom activities locally or globally.

Q. What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

A. I have four goals. First, I want the students to learn as much as they possibly can in my class. Second, I want to foster an appreciation for the relationship between theory and solutions to real-world problems. Third, I want students to learn to make connections across disciplinary, national, and cultural borders—today’s graduates are occupying workplaces and communities that have been transformed. Fourth, I want to prepare the students for life-long learning.

Q. Your favorite place to be or thing to do on campus is…?

A. Going to the Chapel to listen to the interesting speakers who come to this campus. Beyond the UGA campus, I like to go to the mountains with my family, especially in the fall.

Q. What does your community or civic involvement include?

A. When my children were young, we used to referee soccer games together in Athens and surrounding counties when they were not playing. Also, as an elder, I have previously led my church’s outreach activities for the Athens area.

Q. What’s your favorite book?

A. The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample.

Q. What’s your proudest moment at UGA?

A. My proudest moment at UGA was in 2004 when I was the first faculty member to receive the Mentor of the Year for Undergraduate Research Award.

Q. Finally, what are your plans for the future?

A. As a little boy, I was fascinated by my father’s World War II medals. As I grew older, I learned that he fought in Burma (renamed Myanmar) under the British Command in one of the African Rifles Regiments. I have always wanted to know what it was like for him and his fellow Africans. He was reluctant to talk, and I learned not to press. I have read all the important books written about the China Burma India Theater, and there is no account from the perspective of the Africans. Fortunately, I have managed to talk to a few of his friends who are still with us, and I hope I will be able in the future to make their collective experience accessible in their own voices.

Q developed and administered by the Office of the Senior Vice- President for Academic Affairs and Provost, University of Georgia, Athens, USA. Photos supplied by Mickey Y. Montevideo, Public Relations Coordinator, UGA College of Engineering.