When she was a junior mechanical engineering major, Jenna Rosano, BS ’08, MS ’10, began working with Mohammed Kiani, PhD, her department chair. The research involved developing a cell-based microchip that could synthetically mimic microvascular networks and serve as an intermediate drug development step between testing a potential drug on cells in a flask and in animal models.
That first research experience ultimately resulted in Rosano being the lead author of a 2009 paper published in Biomed Microdevice. Incredibly, it was the first of six peer-reviewed journal articles Rosano authored or co-authored by the time she earned her master’s degree. CFD Research Corporation (CFDRC), the Huntsville, Ala., firm that Kiani connected her with to work on that first research project, also quickly hired her after she earned her master’s degree—and it now has commercialized and is selling the SynVivo Chips she began developing when she was a Temple undergraduate. Like Rosano, today many undergraduates are working with faculty and gaining research experience thaaccording to Cheryl Sharp, assistant director for graduate studies, can prove valuable for either pursuing a graduate degree or a job. It can pay immediate dividends as well.
“Besides just going to classes, being required to be on campus and to work diligently for another reason, research, puts you in a mindset to succeed,” says Christopher Brueck, a senior civil and environmental engineering major who has been conducting tree-based pollution mitigation research. “If you plotted my grade point average over time you would see that as soon as I started doing research my GPA shot up.”
Adds Kiani, “In today’s world, learning information is not enough. You need to analyze it and come up with ideas and hypotheses to test. And for those kinds of things few activities can match what research
can give you in terms of developing analytical skills.”
The ways that undergraduates are gaining research experience include:
•the College of Engineering’s Undergraduate Summer Research Program, in which the college
pays for half a student’s summer research salary and sponsoring professors pay the other half out of
their laboratory budgets
•the college’s Accelerated Bachelor to Master Degree (ABMD) program, which makes it easier for
undergraduates to engage in research while they earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years
•a two-year Nanotechnology Undergraduate Education grant from the National Science
Foundation grant that funded paid summer research internships
•University-wide funded undergraduate research programs, including
the Diamond Research Scholars Program
the Creative Arts, Research, and Scholarship (CARAS) Program
“As opposed to some graduate students, who see research as their ‘ job,’ undergraduates who get involved in research tend to be both extremely good students and really motivated and excited,” say Kiani. “They think they can change the world and make discoveries, and Jenna Rosano was one of those cases.”
Rosano’s mother, Joan, worked in a hospital blood lab and her father, Bill, is a researcher with a PhD in polymer chemistry. Initially an architecture major, she found her engineering niche while attending
biomedical engineering seminars. “I was just very interested in applying engineering to medicine,” she recalls. When Kiani’s graduate students couldn’t tackle a project that had come in from CFDRC, Rosano volunteered—and thrived. “You’re always learning new lab techniques, you’re discovering new things and you’re also taking things that people have already done and trying to apply them to a new problem,” she says.
According to Kiani, publishing six peer-reviewed papers is all but unheard of even for a PhD student, much less for the holder of just a master’s degree: “Even though she wasn’t a doctoral candidate, by the time she was a master’s student she was the senior student in my lab and she ‘owned’ everything.”
Says Rosano: “It takes a lot of persistence, hard work, organization and having a good story to write a good paper. Getting your research published also demonstrates you’re a good problem solver.”
That, plus the contacts she developed through her research and Kiani’s influence, helped secure her current position as a CFDRC research engineer. “Research is typically a team activity, so if they want to put together a good team and know you work well in a team and you have good expertise, an employer is more likely to hire you over someone else with a similarly good resume,” she says.
National Science Foundation NUE program
The past two summers a total of 13 undergraduates participated in the NSF Nanotechnology Undergraduate Education (NUE) program, whose funding the college matched to double the number of students. Several of the 2011 participants are now pursuing graduate engineering degrees; others have excellent jobs.
“Two of the young women weren’t even considering graduate school but, as a result of their interest in their research, they are now pursuing graduate degrees,” says Svetlana Neretina, PhD, the assistant professor of mechanical engineering who procured the NSF grant. “It’s also much harder to find a job without work experience, and these research experiences have made these students much more employable.”
One of the 2012 participants was Brueck. A year ago he began working with Benoit Van Aken, PhD, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, on an ongoing study that is exploring the ability of black cottonwood poplar trees to safely filter widespread engineered nanoparticles out of soil and water. He has continued the research, both this past summer under the NUE program and currently with his senior design project team.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a jump-start on grad school,” says the senior. “This past summer I pretty much acted as a grad student, with Dr. Van Aken putting a lot of responsibility on me.”
Another NUE researcher, senior Dana Reuther, worked last summer with Kiani to determine the ability of melanin, the human skin pigment, to conduct electrical signals. “Working in a lab is completely different from classwork,” says Reuther. “With classwork, you’re given specific projects to do and you know what your result is going to be, or should be. But in research what you think will happen could be totally different from what actually happens.”
Two summers ago Kyle Gilroy, a College of New Jersey graduate who is now a Temple doctoral student working in Neretina’s Renewable Energy Laboratory, was an NUE student researcher. Exploring the viability of fabricating printable hybrid solar cells using cadmium telluride quantum dot inks, he presented his findings both orally and as a conference proceeding at a regional American Society for Engineering Education conference. He also co-authored a peer-reviewed article on another nanostructure topic.
“For my doctorate, I’m essentially working with nanotechnology and what I did that summer was a very good introduction,” says Gilroy. “We were exposed to so many new, cutting-edge technologies.”
There is a strong research component to the Accelerated Bachelor to Master Degree (ABMD) program, which allows students to earn both their bachelor’s and master’s degree program in five years—in part by substituting three graduate-level courses for their technical electives. Begun in fall 2011, there are now about 35 ABMD students throughout the college.
Among them is senior Christine Yoo, a mechanical engineering major concentrating on bioengineering. “When I was young my uncle was involved in a very bad gas explosion and he needed a lot of skin grafts,” she recalls. “Ever since then I’ve been interested in how technology can improve people’s health.”
As a Temple University McNair Scholar, Yoo needed to complete a research project her sophomore year. Working with Kurosh Darvish, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, she researched the effects of traumatic brain injury caused by explosion-triggered shockwaves. She presented her research at a McNair conference in Atlanta last year. Since then she has continued to assist Darvish, including on an analysis of the material properties of brain tissue under high rates of strain, such as the effects of improvised explosive devices.
College- and University-Sponsored Research Programs
Yoo continued that work this past summer as one of the six students participating in the college’s Undergraduate Summer Research Program. “Both the ABMD and summer research programs are really great experiences,” says Yoo. “You experience what graduate students experience, you work with them, get a feel for what their work is like and what is expected of you.
“And unlike with a textbook problem, when you’re doing research there are a million different angles you need to consider and you have to find everything yourself. It’s a good life lesson and great for grad
This semester 23 students are employed in various faculty research labs—work-study positions that, for some, prove to be their entrée into undergraduate research. That was true for Vira Oleksyuk, a senior majoring in electrical engineering with a concentration in bioelectrical engineering. Required to workat least 10 hours a week in order to receive child support for her young son, on a whim she took a part-time job as a Web site developer for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. That assignment morphed into a part-time position as an undergraduate assistant in the lab of Chang-Hee Won, PhD, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Assuming more responsibilities, last summer the Ukrainian native worked with Won to develop tactile and spectral sensors to help physicians identify malignant tumors non-invasively. She was supported
financially by both the college’s summer research program and the university’s Diamond Scholars Research Program.
“The Diamond Scholars program was a unique experience because it led to interactions with students from a lot of different disciplines who raised a lot of interesting issues I had never thought about,” says Oleksyuk, who plans to further her research as an electrical engineering graduate student at Temple.
Providing students with research stipends pays dividends, she says: “Sometimes professors don’t have the resources to hire undergraduate students for research, but when those resources are made available students can take advantage of opportunities that will definitely change or influence their career goals and widen their interests.
“It has definitely enabled me to develop a lot of skills and it has opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”
Brian Thibodeau, a junior electrical engineering major who spent four years in the Air Force as a technician maintaining electrical systems, agrees. After taking a course last spring with Li Bai, PhD,
associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, Thibodeau e-mailed Bai expressing interest in his research while seeking summer employment. Bai arranged for Thibodeau to teach public school
students about electronics as part of a Temple-sponsored summer program while also working part- time with Bai. Their research involves developing distributed and intelligent software to maximize the
efficiency of chilled water distribution systems on U.S. Navy vessels.
“When I graduate I want to work for the Department of Defense,” says Thibodeau, who continues to work with Bai. “I’m trying to build a resume, and I figure there is no better way to get actual, practical experience than to get involved in research.”
An electrical signals class David Gabriel took with Iyad Obeid, PhD, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, also led to a research position in Obeid’s lab. Since last year the senior
electrical engineering major with a biology concentration has been working with one of Obeid’s graduate students. They are designing an amplifier to read the electrical potential of nerve cells to better understand how they develop and form and strengthen connections over time in the brain.
Says Gabriel: “It’s taught me far more than anything I’ve learned in the classroom.”