When last year’s undergraduate students were planning their summer internships, they had no way of knowing that the global COVID-19 pandemic was just around the corner. Internships and other summer work opportunities are an important part of the undergraduate experience at Stevens, but due to the pandemic many labs and organizations were temporarily shut down, leaving students devoid of these vital educational opportunities.
“Each summer, I usually have four undergraduates join my group, and I typically pair them with my graduate students for one-on-one mentorship,” said chemical engineering professor Stephanie Lee. “Going into this summer, there was a huge demand for summer research projects because so many students’ internships were cancelled at the last minute.”
There are ten students in Lee’s group who joined this summer, and they’re all undergraduate students, with the exception of Mark Spence who had just graduated from Stevens. He initially had a job lined up to begin post-graduation, which was cancelled due to the pandemic. Spence approached Lee about any opportunities and she was eager to include him in her summer research project.
Alina Chen, chemical engineering ‘22, experienced a similar challenge. “Unfortunately, due to COVID I lost my co-op. It was supposed to last my spring/summer semester, but it ended in mid-March,” Chen said. “I reached out to Professor Lee and she was more than welcoming.”
From hands-on labs to remote research
In Lee’s lab, hands-on research is a key component of the experience. “We had to pivot really quickly in order to transition to remote research,” Lee noted.
She divided the group into two tracks: machine learning and computational modeling.
“There are five undergraduates for each track,” Lee said. “Mark Spence is a peer leader for his track, having done senior design with me previously. Abby Circelli had done research with me in the past and came back this summer as a peer leader as well. Each track was also led by chemical engineering and materials science department graduate students, Yuze Zhang and Venkat (Aneesh) Padmasola, who taught fundamentals and guided the research throughout the summer.
Lee’s students began by taking online courses (one on machine learning and one on computational modeling, depending on the track) to learn the background and basics. Then they transitioned to applying these to the research projects. “There was a rather substantial learning curve that came along with developing skills for software that could be used to calculate properties of simulated structures that would otherwise be measured,” said Gregory Mazza, a chemical engineering undergraduate with a minor in green engineering, ‘21.
“They’ve made a lot of progress over the summer, considering what they’ve been given,” Lee said.
Lee recently received a National Science Foundation grant in a collaboration with New York University (NYU) looking at crystals that twist. “My research group is looking at materials for solar panels,” Lee said. “We found that twisting can actually improve the electrical conductivity of these crystals and we don’t know why yet. This was the basis of my proposal that was funded. Twisting affects things like how much light is absorbed and how charge is transported, and we can use that to improve our device performance.”
Lee’s student research team hopes to utilize machine learning to predict which crystals will twist—and which won’t. “We have a small data set, so they’ve been analyzing what properties of these molecules will lead to these crystals twisting as they grow. The idea is to use machine learning to predict which molecules and which systems will lead to this twisting.”
“Without this information, experiments are very time intensive,” Lee continued. “We have to order the molecules, process them properly, see if they twist or not—we basically have to go one by one. If we can use computers to help guide us in the right direction, that would be really helpful.”
Alternative communication in challenging times
The myriad of technological communication tools available have been essential to the success of these research endeavors. “We started a Slack channel and that’s been really useful,” Lee said. “I meet with them at least once a week through Zoom, but they are meeting every day. They’re in constant communication with each other.”
Despite the variety of communication tools available, some of the students found the lack of social interaction to be a challenge. “It was hard to communicate,” Chen said. “Even though we had Zoom and Slack, I would have rather spoken with them in person.”
The digital nature of the work also presented hurdles that may not have been present in a physical setting. “Sharing results and collaborative teamwork to help each other with issues or produce figures often took longer than it may have in person, leading meetings to sometimes extend beyond allotted time,” Mazza said.
Yet despite the challenges inherent in the restricted nature of remote work, there have also been unexpected benefits to the distance-learning experience. Some students even suggested that this model had some potential advantages to being in a physical lab. “In terms of collaborations, the remote, computer-based nature of our work has led to the ability to run multiple processes at once, split amongst our individual computers,” Mazza reflected. “For more intensive work, we’ve been using Dorothy, Stevens’ high-performance computing cluster, with relative efficiency, of which we can still run multiple processes at once–something that could be more limited by traditional lab equipment. Furthermore, our team has had an unintended collaboration with an individual on another research team using the cluster, as he has helped us all learn how to efficiently use it.”
“We learned a lot from the research team at NYU through joint group meetings throughout the summer,” Chen added. “It was interesting to see another team go about an issue.”
Making the most of a challenging situation
Overall, the remote research experiment was a success, despite the lack of access to a physical lab. “My lab is still shut down,” Lee said. “We’ve been very cautious about reopening.”
“This was my first year doing research with Professor Lee and I enjoyed it so much,” Chen said. “I learned so many new things and she was always there to help.”
Still, Lee acknowledges that her students had hoped to have a lab experience. “In the springtime, if our labs are okay and the pandemic situation is in control, I’m considering offering opportunities to conduct research for credit with me so they can have that hands-on experience—see what the systems they’re studying on computers are like in real life.”
As for Mark Spence, he started as an associate process engineer at Par Pharmaceuticals at the end of August.
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