‘This experience changed the trajectory of my professional career and goals’
Stevens hosted 10 undergraduate students and four high school teachers for an immersive summer research experience
College students from seven schools and teachers from four area high schools spent part of their 2023 summer break at Stevens Institute of Technology through the third-annual Research Experiences For Undergraduate Students (REU)/Research Experiences For High School Teachers (RET) Site: Interdisciplinary Research Experience in Sustainable Energy and Bioengineering.
Sponsored through a three-year, $374,971 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the REU/RET Site experience brings college students to live on campus for 10 weeks. Through lab work and mentoring, they advance toward becoming better independent researchers with stronger entrepreneurial thinking skills among a close-knit community of new and experienced researchers.
For the last four weeks of the program, high school teachers join the students to develop new ways to engage their own classes in sustainable energy and bioengineering and potentially inspire them to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers.
“Our REU/RET program is a unique education and research platform, with an interdisciplinary model system that will have an impact on education research culture at Stevens,” said Pinar Akcora, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, who co-leads the program with Patricia Muisener, teaching professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.
Through the 2023 REU/RET Site program, students explored interdisciplinary research opportunities on everything from batteries, catalysts and alternative hybrid electrolytes to microgels for tissue engineering, biomechanics and computational antibody engineering with nine Stevens faculty members:
“The REU program provides undergraduate students with a unique opportunity to engage in cutting-edge research projects,” said Hensley, assistant professor of chemical engineering. “It offers participants a chance to work with experienced researchers to gain hands-on experience and insights into their chosen field of study. Furthermore, the program fosters a collaborative and diverse research community, promoting personal and academic growth while opening doors to potential research and career opportunities.”
REU participant Casey Dolan, who plans to graduate from Lehigh University in 2025 with a degree in materials science and engineering, was eager to gain her first research experience in an environment where she could devote her full attention to the project. She chose to study how color-changing sensors can detect harmful chemicals with Matthew Libera.
“Dr. Libera was helpful in answering my questions, keeping me on track with my research, and offering advice on how to progress my project,” she said. “I learned about the research process, how to present research, and how to create a poster. I expanded my knowledge of polymeric hydrogels and their applications.”
That foundational background and knowledge have already made a significant difference in her journey.
“This experience changed the trajectory of my professional career and goals,” Dolan said. “I’ve been able to apply what I learned to my new research position at Lehigh. I’ve decided to pursue a Ph.D. rather than a master’s degree after graduation. And I will be presenting the poster I created during the REU program at the Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM) national conference this November.”
Her advisor affirms the impact that research opportunities often have on undergraduate students.
“These experiences can have a very profound effect, particularly on students who have potential interest in continuing their STEM studies for a master’s degree or Ph.D.,” noted Libera, whose own interest in an academic career was inspired in part by a summer internship with the U.S. Department of Energy Lab at Iowa State University. “My REU students made tremendous progress, and both projects moved forward. They learned quickly, and they realized how much opportunity they had to initiate experiments and suggest ideas.”
The Stevens professors also appreciate the chance to interact with and learn from the students.
Pin-Kuang Lai mentored County College of Morris student Malcolm Harris in research supporting therapeutics for Parkinson’s disease.
“We found a topic that combines the computational approaches used in our group with his deep research interest,” explained Lai, who has chosen to continue the research project with Harris. “He put a lot of effort into finding literature and applying tools. He learned computational techniques, and he self-learned tools specific for his project. The group activities supported his interpersonal skills. I’m proud that he earned the best poster award in the final REU presentation. I also learned a lot from him about the cause of Parkinson's disease and how our lab can contribute to solving this problem.”
After the students’ first six weeks at Stevens, they’re joined by four RET high school science teachers for the final four weeks of the program.
“The RET component educates teachers on curriculum development to help them with lesson planning,” Akcora said, “and provides opportunities to learn from the REUs on research projects.”
The teachers participated in curriculum development workshops, created in partnership with Deborah Brockaway from the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education (CIESE), and worked with REU students, faculty advisors and teacher facilitator (Mariel Kolker from Morristown (N.J.) High School) to create lesson plans based on the research conducted during the program. The RET participants each spent time in a faculty’s research lab working with the students on lesson plans that focused on sustainability and climate change – themes not normally directly addressed in high school curriculum. These lesson plans will be used in the upcoming year as well as shared with colleagues.
The program aimed to create a mentoring network between the REU and RET students through frequent interactions, workshops and events. “The support and camaraderie among the REU students and RET participants is obvious and celebrated,” said Antonia Zaferiou, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Patricia Muisener, program co-leader found that the mentoring network was a critical component of the success of the program and fostered close collaboration between the REU and RET participants.
The program concluded with the REU/RET Research Symposium featuring a poster presentation by all the REU/RET students and teachers.The REUs and RETs were able to share their work and projects on bioengineering and sustainability with the Stevens community, as well as with their friends and families. Many of the participants plan to attend local, regional and national conferences in the upcoming year to further the outreach of this innovative program.