By Klay Barton
Materials Science and Engineering Research Experiences for Undergraduates
Last year Michael Stanford’s summer job was landscaping with his cousin, as it was the summer before that. The past summer, he learned how to evaporate gold into thin layers to be used in electrochemiluminescence experiments.
“It’s not like physical labor where your body gets tired,” said Stanford, a junior in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Tennessee. “It’s different because you work just as hard, but you’re mentally exhausted.”
Last summer marked the first of three years on a grant to UT’s school of MSE from the National Science Foundation funding Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). REU Director and UT Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Dr. Veerle M. Keppens said there were a number of factors that inspired her to start the REU, but a main one was accommodation of undergraduates.
“Back when I worked at the University of Mississippi in the physics department, the director of the center [National Center for Physical Acoustics] always wanted young people in research, even high school students,” said Keppens. In a field as specialized as materials science and engineering, early hands-on research experience, while not mandatory at UT, greatly benefits students in the long-run—especially those interested in graduate school.
The MSE REU provides a research opportunity to the students that a regular summer job doesn’t. It was more than just an attractive program to put on a résumé, according to Stanford. Networking with other MSE students and gaining skills and knowledge that wouldn’t be possible without lab research were just as important.
“Lots of things went wrong [in lab research],” Stanford laughed. “Actually, the majority of the time, something unexpected would happen. Then, you have to verify if everything was done correctly and explain why it happened that way.”
The eight students who participated in the REU were paired up and resided in Laurel Apartments for 10 weeks. The program consisted of four UT students and one from Georgia Tech, Tennessee Tech, Eastern Illinois, and Puerto Rico. Stanford said he was slightly nervous at the beginning because he didn’t know any of the other students.
“We tried to create a community for the students,” said Keppens. “We wanted the local students to stay here as well, and they did.” Keppens was admittedly hesitant about group activities for fear of micro-managing or being too overbearing, but feedback from students was generally positive. Other group-based activities included: an inaugural cookout hosted by Keppens, weekly guest speakers at lunchtime seminars, a field trip to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (three students even took it upon themselves to go back to ORNL for a tour on robotics), and a five-minute poster presentation on their research at the end of the program.
Seminar topics ranged from “What is Materials Science and Engineering” to “Materials for Onboard Power on Interplanetary Spacecraft” and everything in between, including “Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Presentations.” One seminar in particular that stood out to Stanford was on superhydrophobic materials—more commonly known as water-proof—because the speaker brought demonstrations of objects coated in the material. Water beaded off napkins and bounced off of microscope slides. Enthusiasm for the summer lunchtime seminar series has since been carried over to an introductory MSE course, where faculty speak to classes about their research. Some of the speakers presenting this semester were taken directly from the REU seminar series.
According to Keppens, recruiting faculty to help with the REU was not difficult because faculty members are more than willing to help students with research. Each faculty member that participated in the REU was in charge of a specific research topic and the student who chose to work with them on that project. Stanford chose to work under his advisor, Associate Professor Bin Hu, who first suggested Stanford sign up for the REU.
“I met with my mentor once a week to discuss research and get his opinions,” said Stanford, but said the majority of his hands-on lab work was done with two graduate students who have since earned Ph.D.s. Stanford’s individual project was “Surface Plasmon Coupled Electrochemiluminescence (ECL),” an area of research that has recently gained momentum, especially in the medical field. After weeks of research and preparation, he gave a five-minute presentation and fielded a barrage of questions.
“It was nerve racking,” Stanford recalled, “having to present to people with Ph.D.s and grad students. Then, during the poster presentation, people who had done similar research with different results drilled me with questions.” But overall, Stanford said he was grateful for the experience and glad to have participated in the REU.
The enthusiasm and excitement of the students on their research made it special. For Keppens, the most rewarding part of the REU came toward the end of the summer when one of the students asked if they could come back the next year.
“I loved it.”