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Monk returns to SULI roots

Around the World and Back Again

Former SULI intern returns to Ames Lab

(This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Insider)

It’s not true that “you can’t go home again.” Just ask Travis Monk, whose journey back to the Ames Laboratory involved a couple of years, the completion of two degrees and a stay in a foreign country.

But in the end, at least temporarily, he’s home again at the Lab conducting interesting and important research. Monk was an undergraduate from Truman State University when he arrived at Ames Lab for the first time in May 2005. He was one of 10 student interns who participated in the Lab’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship, or SULI, program that summer.

During his 10-week internship, he worked in physicist Kai-Ming Ho’s program where his job was to fabricate photonic crystals. “It turned out that he (Monk) was really among the good people we had for undergraduate interns,” says Ho. “We quickly added him to our active recruit list for graduate school at Iowa State University.”


Travis MonkTravis Monk, seated, temporarily returned to Ames Lab to work with senior physicist Kai Ming Ho during a break in his studies before heading to New Zealand to work on a Ph.D.


But graduate school at ISU was not to be in the cards for Monk upon completion of his undergraduate degree at Truman State in May 2006. Instead, due to his desire to pursue a master’s degree in neuroscience rather than physics, his plans for getting that degree would lead him thousands of miles away from the Midwest. His destination: the University of Plymouth in Plymouth, England. In September 2007, following one year of intensive study and completion of his thesis, he graduated from the University of Plymouth with a master’s in neuroscience.

Upon receiving his master’s degree, Monk once again found himself making decisions about his future. This time, he had to decide where to complete his Ph.D. In the end, he was accepted into the neuroscience program at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, but there was one hitch: he couldn’t begin until February 2008.“I had some downtime between September and February; I had nothing to do; England was expensive; I was in debt, and I needed a job,” says Monk. “So I contacted Dr. Ho with whom I’d worked in 2005. I told him I needed a couple of months of internship, and I was interested in working for him.

He offered me a job.” So on Oct. 6, 2007, Monk found himself right back at the Ames Lab in an internship involving work on a project similar to the one he’d worked on in 2005.

“I’m basically doing the same work as I was in 2005 fabricating crystals, but this time I’m focusing on one particular application for
photonic crystals, which is using them as a substance-identification device,” he says.

Monk credits the SULI program with providing him the framework to succeed. “I believe it’s because I demonstrated to Dr. Ho that I could do good work while I was in the SULI program that he was so willing to offer me a job when I asked,” says Monk. But that’s not the only reason Monk is so high on SULI. The program also provided him an opportunity to really figure out what he wanted to do.

“When I arrived at the Lab in 2005, I thought I had my career path laid out. I was interested in theoretical physics, came here and did a project in experimental physics with Dr. Ho, and my career path changed,” he says. “I’m living proof that the SULI program really helps.”

SULI really helps scientists too, says Ho, who credits the program with introducing him to a student he’s been able to bring back
to the Lab to help perform cutting-edge research in his program. And although things didn’t quite work out as he’d hoped in that
Monk didn’t decide to come to ISU for graduate school, he says the SULI program did serve its “global” purpose, which is to get
students like Monk to see the value in attending graduate school.

“It’s a way for students to see what real research looks like,” says Ho. “But also it’s a way for university scientists to show
students how much fun it is being a graduate student and for us to have a channel to reach top students.”

Monk’s current opportunity at Ames Lab will continue only a few more months and then he’ll be off to New Zealand and the next
leg of his education journey. But Ho’s and the SULI program’s investment in him is something that will likely resonate with Monk
throughout his entire career. Is there a chance that Monk might find his way back to Ames Lab and ISU again some day? Quoting
Monk, “If neuroscience doesn’t work out, I can always go back to physics.”

~ Steve Karsjen