Carnegie Mellon University

Pictured left to right: Madelaine Ku, Amelia Jones, and Renee Rios

March 28, 2016

Room for Growth: Supporting Undergraduate Research Experiences

For CEE sophomore Renee Rios, all it took was an email and a meeting and she was hooked. She had found the research project that was meant for her.

“This is the perfect mix of what I want to do—infrastructure and environmental engineering,” Rios says, speaking about the independent study project in which she’s been helping develop and test a more environmentally friendly concrete. “It’s the best thing that I’ve done in my undergraduate time,” she says. “Not only am I enjoying the work, but every time I talk to someone at a career fair or for an internship, this research is what we discuss.”

Within CEE, Rios is one of many undergraduates actively involved in research. From senior honors projects to in-depth independent studies, paid summer internships, and short-term support of ongoing projects, opportunities abound for undergraduates to gain hands-on research experience alongside faculty and graduate students.

According to Hamerschlag University Professor and Department Head Dave Dzombak, undergraduates significantly contribute to CEE’s overall research goals. “Our undergraduates help us to get projects started, support the work of our faculty and graduate students, and allow our research to progress faster and farther than it could otherwise,” he says.

Beyond the departmental resources for research, the university offers the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, which awards $3,500 to undergraduates for 8-10 weeks of full-time summer research. Small Undergraduate Research Grants (SURG) are also available for up to $500 for one student and $1,000 for groups.

Additionally, some student research opportunities are funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Learning Lifelong Lessons

For many students, research is one of their first experiences operating in a less structured environment. “That lack of structure can be challenging, especially at first,” says Dzombak. “In a formal course, materials are chosen for you by a professor. You know what is expected for tests and assignments and everything is in a certain order. The boundaries are not as clear in research.”

In this way, undergraduate research not only allows students to synthesize and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom, but it also prepares students to handle uncertainty in the professional world, where projects often are not well-defined initially and can be approached in multiple ways.

Amelia Jones, currently researching the effects of permafrost melting on well-water quality in Alaska, says her seniors honors project has helped her to master valuable skills like self-discipline and time management.

With honors projects, seniors start research in their fall semesters and then present final results the following spring at CMU’s annual undergraduate symposium, the Meeting of the Minds. Knowing that she had a year to complete her project, Jones admits that, at first, the temptation for procrastination was certainly present. However, she quickly realized the impracticality of a slow approach.

“With research, you need time to change things. Even then, you go as far as you can, knowing that eventually you may have to step back and reevaluate all over again,” she says.

These twists and turns came as a surprise for Jones, who previously imagined research as a straightforward, linear process. “My project has evolved so much over the past four months,” she reflects. “I went through four different hypotheses before settling on what I believe is a solid research hypothesis.”

Recently, she has been collaborating with individuals from the state of Alaska, who, although eager to help, may not have sufficiently precise records on permafrost changes with time.

“While I can collect decades of detailed data on groundwater quality and arsenic concentrations in specific well locations, so far I’ve been limited to finding mostly broad yearly trends for permafrost melting, often for five years or less because it is such a recent concern,” she explains.

Madelaine Ku, another senior working on an honors project, has also found that data collection can be an exercise in perseverance. Ku is evaluating long-term historical trends in climate data for Western Pennsylvania, comparing temperatures and precipitation from the past 140 years to recent decades.

“A lot of times there are obstacles you can’t foresee and that slows down your work. For me it was finding data,” she says. “For a while, I felt like I was on a treasure hunt. I got discouraged at first, but you have to be patient with yourself.”

Now that she has reliable data, she’s excited to interpret what she found, using data analysis skills she’s learned throughout the bachelor’s program. “I’m trying to approach it very objectively and not look for increasing or decreasing temperatures or precipitation,” she says. “Pittsburgh’s climate in itself is interesting, so I’m looking forward to understanding what story it has told over the past 140 years.”

Finding Your Own Path

For Ku, the biggest reward has been having ownership over the project. “With research, you get to dive into a specific topic as far as you choose,” she says. “If I hadn’t done research as an undergrad, I wouldn’t have a direction for what I want to do next.”

Jones agrees, “It’s a different kind of academic experience. Research is a little more personal, so you can find out what you’re interested in and where you see yourself going for the rest of your career. If you don’t do research, you might not get that.”

Beyond Rios, Jones, and Ku, so many students have stories to tell about their CEE research experiences. Some come from outside the department, like physics student Robert Buarque de Macedo, who worked with CEE Professor Kaushik Dayal on developing a new model for liquid crystals.

Others traveled abroad, like Angela Ng, who tested water purification technology in Bangladesh with postdoctoral researcher Teri Dankovich and is now continuing that research for an honors project.

Yet others realized a new passion, like Sara Guo, who under the guidance of Professor Burcu Akinci discovered how to merge her creativity and engineering skills by designing digital 3D models with Building Information Modeling, entirely shifting her career aspirations.

While each research experience is unique, the stories share one common refrain: The challenges and the hard work are worth the reward.