Carnegie Mellon University
August 02, 2023

Science and Serendipity

The Mellon College of Science's Summer Scholars Program sets up visiting undergraduate students for success in STEM fields

By Heidi Opdyke

& Kirsten Heuring

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Undergraduate researchers found unexpected ways to get in tune with new colleagues this summer. Through music.

Jose Wui, a rising senior at the University of Texas at Austin, came to Carnegie Mellon University for the Artificial Intelligence and Physics Summer Undergraduate Research Program (AI SURP). When he arrived at Fifth and Clyde Residence Hall — his summer dorm — he found its large music room, complete with a keyboard, drum set, amps, microphone and soundboard.

A pianist and guitarist, he jammed in the space. Other visiting students used the space for a poetry slam.

"We have a Slack channel, and at some point, I reached out to find other musicians," Wui said. Half a dozen visiting undergraduate researchers/musicians responded. The result: new friendships and a growing understanding of their respective scientific fields.

Cyrus Young, a rising senior in math at the University of California, Irvine was in Pittsburgh to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Applied Mathematics Institute (SUAMI). A drummer, he, Wui and others would spend hours playing music and talking.

"The little moments have made this program," Young said. "I've never had a community like this that is so like-minded, and different, it's really cool."

AI SURP and SUAMI are two of the programs that are part of CMU's Mellon College of Science Summer Scholars Program (SSP), which brings together undergraduate students primarily from liberal arts colleges to conduct research in mathematical sciences, physics, chemistry, biology and computational projects.

Each research experience has its own priorities and events, but under the SSP umbrella more than 40 students lived together in the same dorm and were provided science-specific professional learning and development opportunities. SSP aims to increase access to information about graduate school, scientific research, conference meetings and other career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math fields. It also helps young scholars to build professional networks and foster a sense of community with STEM research spaces and improve scholars' ability to think creatively about research as well as work in interdisciplinary and collaborative settings.

"The Summer Scholars Program is one of our big diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that was part of the MCS strategic plan," said Michael Young, MCS associate dean of diversity equity and inclusion. "These kinds of programs give access and opportunities to students who don't necessarily have the same kind of research facilities or faculty at their home institutions."

Summer Scholars Poster Session 2023
Participants in the Summer Scholars Program presented research findings at a poster session in July.

SSP has doubled in size since 2022, in part because more research programs joined and additional funding for students was made available through a National Science Foundation Research Undergraduate Experience (REU) site grant that Michael Young was awarded.

Abby Civiello, a rising senior in chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, held an REU position in chemistry.

"When I was accepted, I started looking into the professor I was paired with, and it made me super excited," Civiello said. "To come here and work on the project that I'm working on currently is exactly what I want to do with my research going forward."

Michael Young said that the SSP and research programs are important recruitment tools for graduate programs at Carnegie Mellon. Already, several students from last year's cohort will be starting doctoral programs this fall. Civiello might be among future Carnegie Mellon applicants.

"Coming here solidified my wanting to go to grad school," Civiello said.

Having more students in the program provided more opportunities for students to collaborate in unexpected ways, said Michael Young. The centerpiece of the program is the interdisciplinary experience. By living in the same building, students not only interacted with lab mates but also learned about research in other departments and about other participants.

"It's really a nice sense of community this program has given us," said Kirsten Lina, a rising senior in physics at the University of Central Florida and one of the musicians. "We've had some amazing social activities, and really good teaming bonding, even though we're mostly in different programs with different mentors."

Michael Young, whose office manages SSP, said the program was a success thanks to the efforts of faculty members and staff. He met with faculty members mentoring in different research areas for weekly meetings to touch base on announcements and updates.

"They would bring in a lot of great ideas, and we worked to adjust the program. A lot of people put in a lot of good work for this, and we've heard rave reviews," Michael Young said. "People, like the faculty mentors are very invested."

One of the highlights for not only the students but also the faculty were mentorship dinners that happened throughout the summer. Small groups of students would meet with a professor and talk informally over a restaurant meal to get advice.

Anna Rittenhouse, a rising senior at Clark Atlanta University and an REU recipient, participated in SUAMI and shared a meal with one of her research mentors, Rachel Kurchin, an assistant professor of materials sciences and engineering.

"I really enjoyed getting to know our mentors outside of our project. One thing Rachel Kurchin said that resonated with me, is that she's fortunate to have a job where she enjoys thinking about her research outside of 'work hours,'" Rittenhouse said. "It made a life in research and academia very appealing to me because I love learning and problem-solving. My conversations with my mentors definitely helped to lead me to my decision to apply for Ph.D. programs."

Stefanie Sydlik, an associate professor of chemistry, participated both in the mentor dinners and Young's weekly meetings. SSP's growth from last year excited her.

"It means we're doing something right," Sydlik said. "Students have a lot of choices of places where they can spend their summer, and it's quite the compliment that they're choosing to spend their summers learning about the program here."

The summer wasn't all work. SSP participants went white water rafting, visited Kennywood amusement park, checked out local museums and fireworks and took in a Pirates baseball game. They also organized their own events, such as on the last night of the program the musicians put on a concert for their peers. They performed under the name Zander and the Others, a reference to Aleczander Paul, a rising senior in physics from the University of Hawaii in Manoa, who played piano with the group. Cyrus Young jokingly suggested the name.

"The concert went really well! Everyone seemed to have a good time and we all felt pretty satisfied with our performance," said Paul, who was part of AI SURP. "I thoroughly enjoyed CMU, the research I did was extremely interesting, I learned so much about artificial intelligence, my mentor and the SSP organizers were amazing. Getting to know the other SSP students was such a great experience."