Undergrads Discover Their Research Passion in the Lab
By Chris Dawson
When Megan Hill ’15 was a freshman at Cornell Engineering she dreamed that maybe someday before she graduated she would be able to get into the Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility (CNF) in Duffield Hall to do some research. “I came in thinking I wanted to be a ChemE, but then I took an intro to engineering class on nanoscience and after that I was like, ‘I have to do that. I will do that before I leave here.” In her mind, “before I leave here” meant probably sometime during her senior year.
It turns out, Hill didn’t have to wait anywhere near that long. She took an introductory materials class and that led her to become a materials science major. Shortly after, she joined Associate Professor Mike Thompson’s lab group and was doing research in the CNF as a sophomore.
While it may sound surprising that a 19-year-old student would have access to nanotechnology equipment that costs millions of dollars to build and operate, this sort of thing happens at Cornell Engineering fairly regularly. Many undergraduate engineering students choose Cornell for this very reason. In fact, almost half of the engineering undergraduates participate in some form of research before they graduate.
Mike Thompson, the materials science and engineering (MSE) faculty member who welcomed Hill into his lab, said “Megan Hill was just a natural for semiconductor processing. As a sophomore, her work fabricating microelectronic devices in the CNF was critical to our work on understanding alternative semiconductor materials.” Thompson, who is always supportive of undergraduate researchers in his lab, added, “Inviting undergraduates into our research projects is definitely a win-win situation. Students gain real lab experiences with an opportunity to apply their course learning to current problems, and my lab gains incredibly enthusiastic and talented researchers.”
These days, Hill is two years into a Ph.D. program in materials science and engineering at Northwestern University. She has continued to study nanomaterials in the group of Professor Lincoln Lauhon, focusing on characterizing strain and composition in semiconducting nanowires. Contacted recently by email, Hill confirmed the value of her undergraduate research at Cornell: “My invaluable experience in Professor Thompson’s lab not only encouraged me to pursue a research career, but also gave me the skills necessary to excel in a top Ph.D. program.”
Five minutes later, another email came in from Hill. “I forgot to mention: I was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowship at the end of my senior year, which provides me three years of research funding. My undergraduate research was critical to NSF in the application process, as it showed my capability to succeed in graduate school.”
WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME?
It makes sense that undergraduate engineering majors would want lab experience. A fair percentage of them go onto graduate studies or research positions within industry or government labs upon graduation. What better way to find out if research is something you want to pursue than by doing it?
Frank Wise, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Engineering in Cornell’s School of Applied and Engineering Physics, agrees wholeheartedly on the value of undergraduates doing research. “In my opinion,” said Wise, “it is critical for students to see the theoretical stuff they learn in classes put into action. I was lucky enough to work in a lab as an undergrad and it was a huge ‘a- ha’ moment. I would probably not be in research science today but for that experience.”
When an undergraduate asks Wise about work in his lab, Wise and his Ph.D. students get together and brainstorm projects. They cannot simply say “yes” to each request since time and attention are resources in constant demand. But they sometimes see things that are the perfect scope for an undergraduate. Zachary Ziegler ’17 took a quantum physics class with Wise in his junior year. “It was my favorite class at Cornell,” said Ziegler, “and Professor Wise’s research looked interesting, so I asked to join his group. After a little bit of back and forth we found a project that fit me well, so I joined the group.”
Ziegler admits that he is actually doing several kinds of research when he works in Professor Wise’s lab. He works with a new type of fiber laser that can reach the highest levels of performance in terms of output-pulse energy and quality while at the same time remaining competitive in both cost and stability. But in addition to the scientific research, Ziegler is also investigating his career options.
“I wanted to do research as an undergraduate mainly to learn what kind of things are out there in engineering physics, and what the state of the art looks like,” said Ziegler. “While I’ve known that I enjoy STEM, I have always wanted to see what working in different fields is like, and the different kinds of problems one faces. Maybe I didn’t know that was my motivation when I started doing research, but I think it’s true. I will admit, some of my motivation is pretty selfish: I wanted to figure out what I would enjoy doing after I graduate.”
Rather than calling Zeigler’s motivation selfish, Lisa Schneider-Bentley would probably call it smart and reasonable. Schneider-Bentley is the director of Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI) at Cornell. Part of her job is to administer the Undergraduate Research Program at Cornell Engineering. “There are tremendous benefits for engineering students doing research as undergraduates,” said Schneider-Bentley. “It is a great opportunity to apply classroom learning to the broader field right away. It exposes students to the research process, and to the collaboration and mentoring relationships that are critical within a successful research group. Also, it helps them define their career paths.”
In addition to these benefits, engaging in undergraduate research can also lead to academic credits or pay. Once a student has secured a spot in a lab, they may be able to arrange with their faculty mentor to receive academic credit for their research effort.
Professors receive funding for their research projects from a variety of sources. These sources have varying rules on how those funds can be used. Some allow a professor to pay undergraduate researchers from their grants while some do not. This is where Schneider-Bentley’s office can help. “Our undergraduate research grant program allows students to earn wages for their time spent engaging in research on a mentored project. This is especially helpful for those undergraduates who need to earn money toward school costs, enabling them to have a research experience rather than dedicating the time to some other on- or off-campus job,” said Schneider-Bentley. “It also helps alleviate the costs for faculty members who include undergraduates in their research programs.”
Schneider-Bentley says that in the current year, her office was able to fund roughly 60 percent of the engineering undergraduates who applied. “I have been in this position for 14 years,” said Schneider-Bentley, “and in that time I have seen growing interest in undergraduate research from both students and faculty. We are working hard to expand and diversify our funding base to help support this interest.”
Some money comes from the general pool of funds contributed by Cornell Engineering alumni, some comes from specific, directed alumni donations and some comes from corporate sponsorships. Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. and the Boeing Company are examples of corporate partners who have provided financial support for undergraduate research at Cornell Engineering in recent years.
Another consistent and valuable source of support over the years has been Jim Moore, a 1962 graduate of what was then the School of Electrical Engineering at Cornell. Undergraduate research “adds a whole new dimension to the academic experience that you can’t get in the classroom,” said Moore. “I had the opportunity to work with Professor Sam Linke one summer. I also worked several summers for Professor Ralph Bolgiano as a technician supporting his trans-horizon research. I gained a lot of practical knowledge and I got paid.” Moore believes in the value of undergraduate research so passionately that he has been supporting the Undergraduate Research Program for almost 30 years.
Another means of support for undergraduate researchers is the Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholars Program (RCPRS). This program is not limited to engineering students. Rather, it supports a select group of undergraduate students from all of the colleges at Cornell. It provides each scholar with a generous research support account and other financial aid. Rawlings Scholars collaborate with a faculty mentor to design and carry out an individualized program of research.
Elizabeth Weiss ’17, a biomedical engineering student, says that the Rawlings Program played a decisive part in her decision to come to Cornell. Weiss worked with Professor Julius Lucks, formerly with the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE). Her project with Lucks focused on biomolecular engineering of RNA gene regulatory mechanisms. Before Weiss’s junior year at Cornell, Professor Lucks took a new position at Northwestern. Weiss wanted to continue to do research that would help her grow as a scientist, so she sent a few emails to professors whose work she found interesting.
Weiss found a spot in the lab of Claudia Fischbach-Teschl, professor of biomedical engineering. The Fischbach Lab applies multidisciplinary strategies to gain a better qualitative and quantitative understanding of the microenvironmental conditions fundamental to the pathogenesis and therapy of cancer. Tapping into her previous experiences in other labs, Weiss was able to offer some real expertise in the design and implementation of a project looking at the difference in gene expression in bone cells under normal conditions and when tumor factors are present. “It feels good to make real contributions to the work of the lab,” said Weiss.
Samantha Moruzzi ’20 did not have a chance to do any sort of scientific research in high school. But it was something she was excited to pursue once she got to Cornell. “I was walking through ClubFest when I stopped at the table for the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board (CURB),” said Moruzzi, a science of earth systems student. “Pretty quickly, I was paired with a mentor who was a senior and she helped me figure out how to get started.”
Moruzzi took it from there. She set up a meeting with Matthew Pritchard, associate professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, to ask about his research. That conversation led to an interview and the interview led to a research position in Pritchard’s lab.
“I am looking at thermal anomalies at volcanoes in Central and South America as measured by orbiting remote sensing equipment,” said Moruzzi. “In the end, we are trying to improve prediction capabilities when it comes to volcanic eruptions. I like it because it gives me hands-on experience, I get to see what I am learning in the classroom put into practice.” Moruzzi’s long term goal is to take what researchers are learning about other planets and moons in the solar system and use it to better understand geologic processes here on Earth. “I also know that I will apply to be a mentor through CURB to help other people find their own research path,” says Moruzzi.
Pritchard has had 35 undergraduates work on various research projects over the years and says it is a very rewarding part of his job. “Undergraduates have helped me move projects forward from idea to concrete results that can then be used in proposals as well as to help complete research projects and co- author scientific publications,” said Pritchard. “Undergraduates add enthusiasm that drives new experimental research projects, they have time available to finish ongoing or existing projects, and they are a force multiplier to help my graduate students and postdocs be successful in their own projects.”
Another professor who has had many undergraduate researchers in his lab over the years is Uli Wiesner, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Engineering in MSE. “Hands on experience is one of the best motivators for students,” said Wiesner. “To be part of a research group and experience that research culture was an incredible experience for me and I would like to provide undergrads in my lab that same opportunity.”
Wiesner also mentions an important benefit of having undergraduates in the lab: “My graduate students learn how to supervise a student themselves, which is an important experience for them to learn from. Working with an undergraduate may also allow them to work on a side project which otherwise would not be covered. It is a win-win.”
Divya Srinivasan ’18 is currently working in Wiesner’s lab and she highly recommends the experience. “Sometimes I’m surprised at the work I do, and the opportunities I get through research,” said the MSE student. “I had no exposure to research in high school. I tell a lot freshman here who are afraid or think that they may not have the necessary background that if they are interested they should just ask. It is never a bad thing to be in a room full of people smarter than you—that just creates an opportunity to learn so much more.” Srinivasan’s work in the Wiesner Lab has been funded through the Undergraduate Research Program and through the Rawlings Presidential Research Scholars Program.
Through her participation in the Rawlings Scholars Program she has attended the American Society for Engineering Education Conference and has presented posters on her research. “Going into it, my main goal was to learn how to do the things the Wiesner Lab does,” said Srinivasan. “But I have also learned so much more about research and about the field.”
Another Cornell undergraduate who has found a meaningful research project simply by asking is Ivy Suiwen Wu ’17. Wu took a class on stochastic modeling with Andreea Minca, assistant professor of operations research and information engineering (ORIE), and at the end of the semester, Wu and three other students asked for Minca’s help finding a project they could tackle that would have real impact in the world. Minca had the team join her on an interdisciplinary project with Human Ecology Professor Rana Zadeh of the Cornell Health Designs Innovations Lab. “Undergraduates have the technical skills to approach difficult problems,” said Minca. “They also have the courage. They are not afraid of the challenge. They can leverage their knowledge and solve real problems.”
Wu, along with ORIE undergrads Jane Lee, Dae Won Kim and So Yeon Yoon, worked to optimize the floorplan of hospital intensive care units (ICUs). Nurses in ICUs have many routine tasks that are dictated by workplace and medicine safety rules. Depending on the physical layout of the unit, some of these rules can result in nurses making multiple trips to and from the same room simply to accomplish a task as basic as delivering morning meds. Wu and her team believe there has to be a better way. “Our project aims to find a way to optimize the floor plan of a nursing unit to minimize the walking distance traveled by a nurse during a typical workday and to maximize the quality of patient care,” said Wu.
Wu and her group were able to design a simulator to model the way a typical nurse’s work flows in an acute care unit. Using the simulator, they are able to see how work flow interacts with the environment. They are now writing a paper describing their findings. Their hope is that healthcare architects will use their simulator and their ideas to design the ICUs of the future.
LEARNING BY DOING
The best way to learn what research scientists do is by doing it. Engineering students benefit, professors benefit, graduate students and postdocs benefit. Just as importantly, society benefits from the innovations that come out of these labs and from the development of the next generation of skilled researchers. In the same way that medieval guilds brought people into the field of glass-blowing or carpentry or metalwork, research labs at Cornell Engineering are taking in and training undergraduates who often go on to academic, government or industrial research positions of their own.
Students see the relevance of classroom learning right away, they see how the research process works in their particular field, they learn more about their own possible career paths and they often develop valuable mentor-mentee relationships with professors and graduate students. Professors gain enthusiastic lab members and create focused projects that move their labs’ efforts forward. Grad students and postdocs get experience managing other people. And the generational march of scientific research continues forward.