I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University, a first-generation college student who was dazzled, and at times intimidated, by the college experience.

Early on in my undergraduate studies as a psychology major, a professor made a lasting impression on me. She was an exquisite teacher who was especially animated when she brought her own research projects into the classroom, sharing her enthusiasm for the subject and the process of discovery.

For me, her class was a life-changing experience.

My passion shifted from psychology to Middle Eastern studies and, in particular, the origins of the conflicts in modern Middle Eastern politics and society.

I found that my commitment to uncovering new knowledge was steadfast, even when learning that my access to historical documents in the Egyptian National Archives was controlled by an archivist whose level of cooperation depended on his mood, his connection with foreigners, the political climate in Egypt, or simply the chance that he liked me.

This was not the research experience I had expected. But I adjusted and eventually published three books and numerous articles, the subjects of which became integral to my classroom discussions as a university professor.

These and other memories came flooding back to me last fall when I hosted 16 USM students in my house every Wednesday evening for a seminar on the history of modern Egypt. It was the highlight of my week.

My fascination with the modern Middle East and my commitment to sharing my scholarly research remain as strong as when I was a professor.

There is a vibrant community of engaged faculty researchers at USM who, like my Brandeis professor, share their research and passion, inspiring students in their own career choices.

For example, astrophysicist Julie Ziffer is part of an international team of eight researchers that recently discovered a layer of ice and organic molecules covering the surface of an asteroid.

Ziffer accomplished her part of this exciting discovery using her computer to control a telescope in Hawaii. That computer is located in her apartment in USM’s newest residence hall, where she lives with her family and serves as a mentor to the students living in that hall.

Biochemist Stephen Pelsue received funding from the Lupus Research Institute to identify a gene that causes flaky skin in mice — a condition that shares similar features with the serious autoimmune disease human lupus.

Pelsue came to us from Bar Harbor’s Jackson Lab, and now he shares his experiences as a research scientist in the private sector with his students. Perhaps one day his research, or research done by one of his USM students, will contribute to finding a cure for lupus.

Computer scientist Clare Bates Congdon has won national recognition as a teacher-scholar through a National Science Foundation “CAREER” grant that supports “the work of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate their research with the education of students.”

Congdon will use the grant to continue to unlock the mysteries of noncoding DNA, essential for understanding the role that exposure to toxins plays in the transfer of genetic code.

Congdon has also brought teams of her students to the World Congress on Computational Intelligence, where they pit their artificial intelligence programs in competitions against other world-class university students, sometimes winning.

Professor David Carey, USM’s expert in Latin American history, is co-editor of the book “Latino Voices in New England” with Professor of Education Bob Atkinson. The book is a collection of personal stories from Latinos about their journeys to southern Maine in search of a better future.

Carey engages students in the classroom and in the community, asking students, for example, to work with immigrants to help them learn English.

Some of the most exciting news USM has received lately involves environmental scientist Daniel Martinez, who has just received National Science Foundation funding to develop courses that will prepare our students to work in Maine’s fast-growing renewable-energy sector. The grant will also provide our students with international internship opportunities.

It may sound cliched, but there is no more powerful lesson for students than working with, and learning from, scholar-teachers who generate new knowledge and creative work. These faculty model an engagement with education and imagination that exerts a profound influence on students’ life journeys.

USM Professor of Classics Peter Aicher put it best when he said, “Students and I are fellow explorers.”

Selma Botman is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]