Summer research experiences strengthen student skills, help recruit graduate students
Each summer, students throughout the United States pack up their field clothes and put on their lab equipment to conduct research with NC State faculty members.
For students, these summers are an important time to learn more about potential graduate programs and to improve their research skills, culminating in a poster presentation at the NC State Summer Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium. And for faculty members, it’s a chance to further their research, recruit future students and spread the word about the innovative work happening at NC State.
Many students participate in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) funded by the National Science Foundation. The College of Engineering hosted several REU sites in 2019, including: the FREEDM Systems Center and PowerAmerica REU, the Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST) REU, the Socially Relevant Computing and Analytics REU and the Joint Engineering Research Center REU.
Students from NC State and other universities can apply to these programs, and in addition to their research, participate in labs and other activities that improve their understanding of the research process. These REUs have been so successful that the College has created similar programs, such as the Research Internship Summer Experience (RISE) with the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE).
In the FREEDM Systems Center and PowerAmerica REU program this summer, junior Hampton Moore conducted research while also participating in technical labs and meeting local industry professionals — and he began to feel more settled at NC State. Moore, who is majoring in mechanical engineering, transferred from Johnston County Community College in August 2019.
His summer research focused on a magnetic core characterizing device, which tests the core of power transformers to see how much power is being lost by an electronic device’s magnetic core. The research’s ultimate goal is to determine the best waveform to minimize core loss in electronic devices.
While Moore won’t be continuing with his current research, he said the program has helped clarify how to pursue research at NC State.
“It definitely gives me an idea of the relevance of undergraduate research,” he said. “If I had an idea I wanted to develop further, I would know where to reach out to for funding or a mentor.”
For other students, these summers allow them an in-depth experience at NC State while they are deciding on graduate schools.
Yashira M. Valentín-Feliciano participated in CCEE’s eight-week RISE program, which is open to graduate students. She is in her final year of an engineering master’s program at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez and will be applying to Ph.D. programs for 2020.
“I like to do REUs because of the knowledge I’ll gain and because I’ll get exposed to a different environment, so I’ll have more diversity within my academic career,” she said.
This summer, she worked with CCEE professor Dr. Francis de los Reyes on using molecular methods to evaluate the microbial communities of pit latrines through fecal sludge analysis. Her research has ties to public health, as it could help improve researchers’ understanding of prevailing infections in specific communities. Similar analysis has been done for chemicals in sewer samples, but there isn’t much existing research specific to pathogens in pit latrines.
For de los Reyes and other faculty members, RISE and similar programs allow current graduate students to gain more mentoring experience, and principal investigators (PI) are sometimes able to assign research projects that might not fit with a current student’s thesis or dissertation.
“If a PI had a wild idea, it’s possible a RISE student might test it out,” he said. “There’s also additional manpower for research projects that are ongoing, so it pushes the research forward.”
These programs are also great recruiting tools for future graduate students and help with getting NC State more national recognition.
“It’s a good program, and I’m glad we have it in our department,” de los Reyes said. “It’s important for NC State to have our name out there, and it’s also important for students to go back and say they had a really good experience.”
In some cases, a student’s involvement with summer research is what seals their decision to come to NC State for graduate school. Katie Berkowitz said she was thrilled when she learned that she was accepted to an REU in NC State’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) in 2017, and she started her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at NC State this fall.
Berkowitz, who has a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, first came to NC State for the Composites for Extreme Environments REU because she was seeking a program that emphasized research on materials within a mechanical engineering department. At NC State, she worked under two PIs, Dr. Mark Pankow and Dr. Landon Grace, who are both assistant professors in MAE. She studied the effects of impact damage on the dielectric properties of bismaleimide, a composite used in the radome — a weatherproof enclosure that protects an antennae — of a B1 aircraft, and she returned during the summer of 2018 to continue her research.
“The knowledge gained and the support I’ve received from all of the people I’ve interacted with at NC State was unlike anything I’d experienced before,” she said. “I could not imagine going any place else to continue my education.”