When he was attending college at West Virginia University, Masa Watanabe was struggling.

“I didn’t feel like I fit in to the lifestyle in the United States,” said Watanabe, a native of Japan before moving to the U.S. when he was 18 years old.

But he soon met someone who would change the course of his life. David Aoyama was also from Japan.

“David became like a mentor to me,” said Watanabe. “He became a good friend and helped me grow. With his help, I stayed in school.”

Watanabe would earn his doctorate degree in chemistry before entering the workforce.

Then came a fateful day – Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was watching the news on TV when the planes hit,” said Watanabe of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., as well as in a field in Pennsylvania.

“That night, a friend called me and said David was on the plane that hit the second tower,” he said.

The shocking news led Watanabe to begin rethinking the course of his life.

“David would always tell me that you have to do something for others,” said Watanabe. “It got me thinking about my purpose in life, about helping people who are struggling like I was. That was the moment I decided to teach.”

And he has been teaching ever since at the university level. Watanabe currently works as an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Saint Mary.

This summer, for the second year in a row, he will travel with two students to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California for 10 weeks of scientific research as part of a U.S. Department of Energy program.

Watanabe and his students will be conducting what he calls “computational science research.”

The USM students attending the program with Watanabe will be Rachel Thomas, a junior biology and chemistry major, and Eric Vazquez, a sophomore chemistry and math major.

“It’s pretty crazy to be selected for this,” Thomas said. “It’s really an honor.”

She said the application process through the U.S. Department of Energy was “pretty involved.”

“It’s going to be a pretty cool opportunity to work alongside scientists and students at one of the most famous labs in the world,” she said.