Each morning as Alexandria Udenkwo, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, arrived at the Wilson Synchrotron Lab, she felt like she was not only walking in as a visiting undergraduate but as a working researcher. “I felt like an equal,” said Udenkwo, who spent the summer modeling the Cornell Electron Storage Ring’s positron converter as a student in the Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-Based Sciences and Education’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates.
Undergraduate students like Udenkwo come from campuses across the country each summer to spend eight to ten weeks at Cornell University. Here, they conduct research as part of National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU).
During the summer of 2019, Cornell hosted dozens of students across departments—in nine REU program sites. In a two-part feature on next-gen scientists, we highlight some of the REU students who spent their summers in Cornell research labs. In this feature, part one, we focus on REU students and Cornell faculty mentors at some of Cornell’s centers and institutes: Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-Based Sciences and Education (CLASSE), Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility (CNF), Platform for the Accelerated Realization, Analysis, and Discovery of Interface Materials (PARADIM), Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR), and Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI).
Supportive Faculty, Exceptional Students
Many REU students in Cornell’s programs echoed Udenkwo’s sentiment about working with Cornell faculty and mentors. Darien K. Nguyen, Winthrop College, asserted that his faculty mentor, Alireza Abbaspourrad, Food Science and participant the CNF REU program, treated him like a coworker rather than an underling. “He would say, you try to solve this problem while I solve this. We almost worked in parallel,” said Nguyen. “He gave me research of my own.”
One of the main goals of REU programs across campus is to give students an immersive research experience. Matthias U. Liepe, Physics and co-principal investigator of the CLASSE REU program, emphasized, “Professors not merely educate and train our REU participants in the many skills and tools required to do research, but we also aim to stimulate and invigorate them, to give them a sense of both accomplishment and belonging.”
“He would say, you try to solve this problem while I solve this. We almost worked in parallel. He gave me research of my own.”
Professors across the programs reiterated the benefits of having engaged students working with them during the summers. “The students who tend to apply to these programs are phenomenal, in terms of technical ability, intellectual curiosity, and interest in learning new things,” said Julie M. Goddard, Food Science and host principal investigator (PI) of the CCMR REU. Because of these attributes, the students’ work is often important to a lab’s research endeavors, including discoveries and future publications. Katja C. Nowack, Physics and PI of the CCMR REU program said, “More often than not, the students contribute to the lab’s research in a significant way. It is truly a win-win situation.”
For many REU students, Cornell’s research, faculty, facilities, and other resources offer opportunities that are unavailable at their home institutions. Nguyen, who spent his REU summer helping to develop a microfluidic device for assistive reproduction, came to Cornell partly because he wanted to do chemical engineering research that he could not undertake at his home institution. For Udenkwo, doing work at one of the world’s top facilities for accelerator physics was incredibly valuable.
Maya H. Martinez, Harvey Mudd College, came to Cornell because of the size and interdisciplinary aspect Cornell’s Materials Science and Engineering. As a CCMR REU student in Nowack’s lab, Martinez worked on computational solid state physics, a completely different field from her studies at Harvey Mudd. She performed finite element method simulations of superconducting microstructures. Her goal was to see how strain affects the local superconducting transition temperature of these devices.
“It’s exciting to be surrounded by scientists and peers with such different backgrounds and research questions,” said Martinez. “The most rewarding experience of this program has been realizing that I am a physicist capable of successfully and meaningfully conducting research outside of my comfort zone.”
As a student at a small liberal arts institution, Elizabeth B. Trost, Dickinson College, was drawn to Cornell by the depth of research in plant science available through the BTI REU program. “This is a large community of researchers that I can’t find on my own campus,” she said. “The amount and quality of work at Cornell is fascinating, and it’s some of the highest caliber in the country.”
In the end, many students expressed that simply spending time with professors, postdoctorates, graduate students, and fellow REUs was the highlight of their time at Cornell. “I really got a sense of what truly makes a good scientist and researcher, being surrounded by great people who strive for a better society,” said Gabriel Martinez-Zayas, University of Puerto Rico, REU student in CCMR.
“The research here is amazing. These labs are any scientist’s dream,” declared PARADIM REU student Caroline Fedele, University of North Florida. “But I think it’s really the people. If you find a handful of people you really enjoy working with, that makes the whole experience.”
Expanding the Arena for a Diverse Group of Next-Gen Researchers
A key strategy of NSF-funded REU programs is to expand research opportunities for students who might not otherwise have such options, and in turn, recruit these students into the science and engineering fields. “Having undergraduate research experiences brought us into grad school and lifelong careers in science,” said Georg Jander, Integrative Plant Science and co-PI for the BTI REU program. “For the students who are at colleges that don’t offer opportunities or who don’t have exposure to research as a career, these experiences are really important.”
Again and again, Cornell’s REU professors spoke about the importance of making research accessible to undergraduates, especially those who have limited exposure otherwise. “We make a strong effort to create a diverse mix of students of different backgrounds,” said Liepe. “A large fraction of our REU participants are from underrepresented groups. The program gives us, mentors and professors, the wonderful opportunity to work with this highly talented, stimulating, and diverse group of students.”
Goddard commented, “Any of us in just about any career had someone at some point say, ‘I think you’d be good at this.’ Now to be that person is really rewarding.” Martinez confirmed one of the biggest questions she had as a first-time REU student was whether or not she wanted to pursue graduate school. Since becoming an REU student at Cornell, she decided to continue her career in academia, though she plans to take time off to teach. “This program helped me come to this decision through interactions with grad students, professors, and talking with other students who are also trying to find their path,” Martinez resolved.