By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Irvine, CA, May 16th, 2014 -- Said Shokair was supposed to be a doctor. His high school test scores qualified him for medical school, which he entered at age 17 in his native Syria. Six months later, though, after chatting with an uncle who was a pediatric cardiologist at UCLA, he opted to come to Southern California to complete his studies.
Several thousand UC Irvine students and alumni have good reason to celebrate that seemingly serendipitous about-face; Shokair exposed them to an education they might not otherwise have experienced.
After trading medical school for a UCI double major in electrical engineering and biology, Shokair graduated in 1990 and began to work with students at his alma mater. At first, he was a math counselor, a mentor for under-represented students and a grant writer/curriculum developer.
Then, in 1994 he helped write the proposal that redirected his career and possibly, the careers of thousands of UCI students who learned that the best education often is found in the world outside their textbooks.
Shokair became the founding director of what is now UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), where he has spent nearly 20 years designing and directing collaborations that get his young charges out of the classroom and into the laboratory or field.
Two of those efforts were created in partnership with Calit2. The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Information Technology (SURF-IT) and the Multidisciplinary Design Program (MDP) – each of which pairs students with faculty mentors and emphasizes cross-disciplinary collaboration – give students the opportunity to participate in applied research, present their results and learn a little something about the real world in the process.
“I’m going to engage your mind and your energy. If you’ve been approaching your education as a robot, stop it. The purpose of this program is to transform you, to expand your knowledge and develop the skills to make you more competitive in whatever you decide to do in the future.”
Shokair is unswervingly committed to cultivating a new breed of student. Using a no-holds-barred, in-your-face approach and enough infectious energy to power a moon shot – let’s hear a hoo-ya! – he prods and chastises, praises and challenges, sometimes embarrasses but never demeans. He makes students laugh and he makes them groan. And always, he strives to shake up their thinking.
“For too long we have taught students how to memorize, how to master standardized tests. We condition them to focus on the process, to wait to be taught,” he says. “I want students to transform themselves. I want to help them go from a dependent learner to an independent learner.”
Social ecology professor Wendy Goldberg was on the UROP Faculty Advisory Board with Shokair, and has served as an MDP mentor. “I can't think of anyone on campus who has done more to promote research opportunities for undergraduates from all disciplines,” she says. “His vision and his leadership have inspired thousands of UCI students over the years to get involved in designing and conducting innovative, important studies, and he has motivated faculty to step up to get involved [to] mentor these students.”
Shokair first met Calit2 director G.P. Li when he was an undergraduate in Li’s microelectronics class. (He remembers getting an A … or was it a B+?) Ten years later, he solicited Li’s help as a principal investigator when he submitted a proposal for a micro/nanotechnology summer research program funded by the National Science Foundation. The two have been collaborators and cohorts ever since, sharing a deep devotion to multidisciplinary research and a mutual appreciation for a room-shaking belly laugh.
“At Calit2, we focus on research and development of various technologies, with an emphasis on hands-on training, but typically, R&D happens at a more advanced level,” Li says. “Said is the bridge between advanced research and hands-on learning experiences for undergraduate students. Over the years we have developed such a strong collaboration and relationship that we can finish each other’s sentences without thinking.”
“It’s been a wonderful collaboration,” Shokair says. “When G.P. and I get together, there’s always laughter involved. But we are always so productive. UROP and Calit2 are similar in the sense that we both touch and collaborate with many different disciplines. When we focus on helping people identify their interests and turn those interests into a passion in that collaborative framework, it becomes a perfect marriage.”
And that microelectronics grade that Shokair claims to have received? Li lets loose with a thunderous guffaw. “I don’t think so,” he chortles, then admits: “He was a really good student.”
“Every point of view, every discipline, every major, is as valuable as yours. Your job is to listen, figure out how to engage and come up with a win-win situation.”
For students in Shokair’s research programs, academic silos are verboten; collaboration is key. Shokair urges students to get acquainted, become familiar with each other’s lexicons and keep their biases at bay.
Practicing personal responsibility, exceeding expectations, taking initiative and learning from failure are his mantras. “Teaching students these real-world values is extremely important,” he states.
Johnway Yih was an undergraduate SURF-IT Fellow in 2010, earned a master’s degree in engineering management and now works as a manufacturing engineer. “What I remember most … was his insistence that as students and researchers we would only be able to get out of the programs what we put into them,” Yih says. “This give-to-get mentality is something that I have carried with me, and it has pushed me to learn and do more in education as well as my current career."
“I’m cousin Said; we’re all part of the family so nobody should be shy. Just stand up and say how you feel about being part of the program. If no one volunteers I will call on you anyway.”
Telling students they are family is the highest possible compliment from the devoted family man. Shokair’s face lights up as he describes playing on the floor at home with 3½-year-old daughter Yara or taking a Sunday nap with son Omar, who is almost 1.
He and his wife, Rasha, have opened their home over the years to house a continuing stream of family – sponsoring his parents, his brother and his sister in the U.S. and helping them get established. “It’s family. It’s what you do,” he shrugs.
Engineering professor Abe Lee calls Shokair “one of the most passionate people I know.” Lee, who has worked with him to develop research programs, adds, “He is passionate about everything he does and most of all, he is passionate about people. He always wears his affable smile and is always offering to help. He cares deeply about the students he touches.”
And they return the sentiment. Jordan Sinclair, a 2008 SURF-IT Fellow, remembers Shokair’s patience and persistence as Sinclair waffled about a career in research. “He asked me the right questions, the hard questions. He saw right though the ‘b.s.’, forcing some serious introspection.” Sinclair ultimately decided on a non-research career in health information technology.
Wherever their futures take them, Shokair believes student researchers are likely to be successful after they graduate. “These programs have shortened their learning curve and helped them engage the world outside academia in a more productive way,” he says.
His role is to ensure that students have considered their options. He likes to ask them if they know the proper angle for launching a rocket to get maximum range. “If you launch it at 0 degrees, it will blow your foot off. If you launch it at 90 degrees, it will come down on your head,” he tells them, usually to peals of laughter. “The optimum angle is 45 degrees.
“Your job is to set up the optimum launching angle for your career. If you haven’t done that already, start now.”
Shokair estimates that approximately 2,000 students a year participate in one UROP program or another, and he’s proud of that. “We’re helping students develop the skills, expand their knowledge and enhance their own values so they’re better prepared for the next phase, no matter the decision they make about the future. Our goal is molding students into people who can go out and change the world in a positive way.”
Can we hear a hoo-yah?!