Shelley Anna-Undergraduate Research Office - Carnegie Mellon University

Faculty: Shelley AnnaShelley Anna

  • Undergraduate major & institution:  Physics, Carnegie Mellon University, Class of 1995
  • Graduate institution & focus:  Engineering Sciences, Harvard University
  • Name of dissertation & year of defense:  2000, "Filament Stretching of Model Elastic Liquids"
  • Title at CMU:  Associate Professor (Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering)
  • Classes currently taught:  Undergraduate and Graduate Level Fluid Mechanics, Microfluidics, Interfacial Fluid Mechanics
  • Current research:  Microfluidics, complex fluid dynamics, surfactant transport

Title of Undergraduate Research Project / Type of Support: I worked on the CMU Buckyball Project with Professor Sara Majetich.  I believe I worked on this for 2 years and I had some funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute during that time.  My projects were about "Synthesis and Characterization of Amorphous Nanoparticles" and "Size Separation of Nanocrystals".  I also worked with the CMU High Energy Physics Group for one year (with Professor James Russ)  on some coding for tracking high energy particles.

Currently I offer experimental research projects in microfluidics and complex fluids, and students can do research for credit, or they have been supported through SURG/SURF grants and NSF REU grants.

How did your undergraduate research experience help you in guiding students?  My undergraduate research experience was instrumental in my decision to go on to graduate school and continue to do research in academics.  I recognize the importance of this type of experience for my students, where they go to graduate school or not, and I try to offer projects that will allow students to get first hand experience that will help them understand what research is, whether they like it, and what types of research they might want to do in the future.  I also remember how hard it was to learn to do research independently and effectively, and so I try to guide students in how to manage their time and manage their projects by tackling open-ended problems in small steps.

Why do you work with undergraduate researchers?  Does it impact your own career directly?  I work with undergraduate researchers for the reasons listed earlier - based on my own experience and my observations of others, research experiences are an important part of the undergraduate engineering/science curriculum.  I want to offer these opportunities to students in part because I feel that it is an important part of my job as an educator.  I also find that learning to mentor others in an important skill for my graduate students, so having undergraduate students around the lab offers a good professional development opportunity for my graduate students.

How do you approach and structure your mentoring of undergraduate researchers?  Why is it valuable for you?   I find that assigning students to projects that are affiliated with a graduate student project works best, where the graduate student can act as a day-to-day mentor and resource.  Also I meet weekly with each student so that we can discuss progress, overcome obstacles, and make a plan for the next steps. 

Did you benefit from a faculty mentor in your undergraduate or graduate years?  Yes, mentors have been important at all stages of my career, in a variety of ways.  Mentors have helped me learn technical skills and engineering/science fundamentals, they have helped me understand my opportunities for the future, and the "big picture" importance of research, and they have encouraged me to pursue my interests and helped me develop as a professional so that I could continue to have many different career opportunities. 

What do you learn from working with undergraduate researchers?  Working with undergraduate researchers helps me keep perspective on what it takes to learn engineering and science, and what it takes to learn to do research.  I find that going back to basics and teaching someone else how to think about research helps me refine my own research skills and keep improving.

When you face an obstacle in your work, what do you usually do?  What advice do you have for students who may face a glitch or hardship in a project?  Facing obstacles, glitches, and hardships in my work is very common!  That's part of what keeps research interesting.  Figuring things out is fun, but it can be frustrating too, and it can take many tries before you are successful.  Ideas rarely work on the first try, and usually they take lots of hard work, background research, trial and error, and persistence to get to the outcome.  My advice, first and foremost, is to realize that this is what research is!  If someone already knew how to do this, it wouldn't be research!  It is very satisfying when you finally get to the answer and you know how much hard work you put into it. So keep trying!

But practically, on a day to day basis, some things can help you get over the obstacles.  Take a break - going for a walk or doing something different for a while often stimulates new ideas.  Read some new papers - often a solution can be found in the literature, although sometimes you have to be creative and look in places you didn't initially think would be important.  Leaf through catalogs - that's a great way to get ideas about how to do a new experiment.  Step back and write down what you know - sometimes you run into obstacles because you've forgotten what you set out to do in the first place.  Taking a new look at the problem with a fresh view might give you ideas for a whole new approach to the problem.  Talk to your faculty advisor or graduate student mentors - they have more experience and may have some suggestions!  Plus, talking through the problem (even with a roomate or someone who isn't a specialist) might help you sort things out and get an idea for how to solve the problem on your own.  If no one is around to talk to, try some of the classic techniques for getting over "writer's block", like mind mapping and brainstorming.  These tricks work really well for research too!

If you could summarize your own research experience in one word, what would it be?  Fun!