Undergrads work alongside experienced researchers through national program

Undergraduate Research Experience

Chelsey Poling, a senior biomedical engineering major at Arizona State University, spent much of the past summer working on the design and fabrication of microfluidic devices at the University of California, Berkeley.

ASU junior materials science and engineering major Katelyn Keberle spent the summer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland, helping develop new flame-retardant coatings for polyurethane foam.

They were among students in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering selected to participate in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

ASU’s own Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative has for the past several years given hundreds of undergraduate engineering students opportunities to get a hands-on introduction to the world of research.

Now a growing number are pursuing more research training through REU, which enables them to compete for summer jobs working on projects that match their career interests at a variety of universities and research institutions across the country.

REU students are given a stipend and free room and board for assignments that typically last about 10 weeks.

“I enjoyed getting to work with smart and interesting graduate students,” Poling says of her summer at Berkeley.

Her REU experience “was so much more than learning about the research process,” she says. It piqued her interest in pursuing graduate studies and better prepared her to make decisions about her career path, she adds.

Poling and a fellow REU student she worked with at Berkeley have since been selected to present their work at the annual Biomedical Engineering Society conference in Atlanta in October.

Keberle says her summer experience gave her insights into the relationship between engineering, science and industry. The REU program offers “a great opportunity to figure out if you want a career in research, and if you want that career to be in academia or in industry,” she says.

Keberle was one of six ASU engineering students to work at NIST through the REU program during the past summer – at either its Maryland facility or the one in Boulder, Colo. The others included chemical engineering majors Stuart Ness, Jessica Nichols and Daniel Stehlik, electrical engineering majors Arad Lajevardi-Khosh and Weidong Ye, biomedical engineering major Brittany Duong and mechanical engineering major Abbas Jaber.

Students from other universities have also been spending summers in Arizona in recent years, working with one or more of the roughly 20 ASU faculty members who regularly open their research labs to REU students.

Terry Alford, a professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, has been working the REU students for many years.

This year he collaborated with colleague Aprilla Lanz, a math professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia and an ASU engineering alumnus, to recruit seven Norfolk State students to do summer research at ASU.

Four Norfolk State students worked on mathematical biology projects funded by the Mathematical Association of America. Two worked on projects ASU researchers are pursuing in coordination with the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network.

Another Norfolk State student was one 19 funded by the REU program who worked under the mentorship of ASU associate research professor Stuart Bowden at the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) Engineering Research Center, a national center based at ASU.

Alford describes his role in support of the REU students as “a mentor and a cheerleader, with high hopes that the students enjoy their time at ASU and return here to do graduate studies.”

Alford says he enjoys seeing the undergraduates develop confidence “when they realize they can make research happen,” just like professional engineers.

While most REU projects offer students the opportunity to do research in engineering and science fields, there are also projects around the country in education, the humanities and social sciences.

ASU has offered REU opportunities in justice studies, global leadership and sociology, in addition to technological fields.

Students can get involved by inquiring about individual faculty members’ interest in working with them to submit REU research proposals to the National Science Foundation. Students can also apply directly to other universities that have established REU programs.

“The push for new REU opportunities at ASU can come from students,” says Stacy Esposito, director of Engineering Research Advancement for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

She advises students to contact faculty members who are conducting specific kinds of research they’re interested in. She also can connect students with research advancement staff in the engineering schools to help find potential REU opportunities.

Written by Rosie Gochnour and Joe Kullman