Undergrads spend summer at PSU doing hands-on research

 Portland State's labs were busy this summer — not only with faculty and graduate students, but with more than two dozen undergraduates who spent eight to 10 weeks conducting hands-on research alongside faculty mentors. 

Warren Gunn, a recent Portland Community College graduate who is transferring to PSU in the fall, tried to figure out what was happening at the structural level with 3D-printed components that, when heated, would increase in strength but also shrink. Ganelao Chao, a senior physics major, tackled a large and unwieldy dataset that will help project how climate change may affect springtime precipitation in the Pacific Northwest.

The students were participating in the National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates, a program that involves students in meaningful ways in ongoing research programs. There are 725 sites nationwide, and PSU is home to three: Atmospheric Science Experiences in PSU's Center for Climate and Aerosol Research, Computational Modeling Serving the City, and Application of Microscopy and Microanalysis in Multidisciplinary Research.

The students received stipends, training on equipment and techniques they'd be using during the summer and professional development, but more importantly, firsthand research experiences that will help prepare them for graduate school or careers in STEM. Projects ranged from using machine learning to recommend the shortest walking route for Harriet Tubman Middle School students that would limit their exposure to air pollution to exploring the spatial patterns of glacial change in the Rocky Mountain West, and characterizing novel viruses from extreme environments. At the end of the summer, they presented the results of their work.

'High-impact experiences'

Jason Podrabsky, PSU's associate vice president for research, said research experiences are one of the most high-impact consequential experiences that a student can have during their undergraduate career.

"It gives them an opportunity to conduct research and be in a lab and to practice their field rather than just learn about it," he said. 

Podrabsky said the REU sites also help raise the visibility of the university as they draw students from neighboring institutions and around the country.

Jay Gopalakrishnan, a math professor who co-directs the Computational Modeling Serving the City REU, said their site works to recruit students from underrepresented populations or from schools with limited access to research opportunities. Students learned the foundations of computational modeling, then dove into an eight-week research project together with a faculty mentor and community partner.

"Our REU exposes undergraduates to some interesting research that's going on here, and gives them insight into how science is done, especially science like this that has direct impacts to the city," Gopalakrishnan said.

 'Real-world context'

Students in the REUs often have access to advanced instruments and equipment that few undergraduates have the opportunity to use. Gunn, who will be majoring in mechanical engineering, worked in Alexander Hunt's Agile and Adaptive Robotics lab as part of the Microscopy and Microanalysis REU. He used optical microscopy to see how 3D-printed material that would be used in robotic components changed when heated.

"Coming from a community college, you just don't have access to this type of equipment, these types of lab spaces, these opportunities," he said. "It was really cool to be able to implement some of the things that I was doing in class in a more real-world context."

He doesn't know yet if he wants to pursue a career in research, but said it was important for him to get hands-on experience in materials science. He found himself doing a lot of trial and error, which was both exciting and daunting.

"Even though I couldn't say conclusively that this is why this is happening, research is about getting comfortable with that ambiguity," Gunn said. "It also provides a good body of research for somebody else to take the reins on and explore further."

Intensive research environment

For Chao, the REU was an opportunity to get a taste of climate research and learn programming and data analysis — skills that are applicable to different careers. She joined geography professor Paul Loikith's Climate Science Lab for the summer, working to validate the accuracy and reliability of a unique climate model.

"It lays the groundwork for then being able to look at climate change with this model because it hasn't been validated in this way before," Loikith said. "We wouldn't have been able to analyze this data this summer if we didn't have Ganelao here to do it and bring her skills and interest and hard work to get the analysis done."

Chao said the REU not only gave her an intensive research experience, but was important in helping her develop "soft skills" like being able to effectively communicate and work with others.

"It's been a really good experience," she said.

Story and inside photo (top) by Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Inside photo (bottom) by Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science

Homepage photo by NashCo: Students in the lab of Jun Jiao, the PI of the Application of Microscopy and Microanalysis in Multidisciplinary Research REU.