Experimentation is the heart of scientific discovery, a process often limited only by drive, imagination and opportunity. Dozens of undergraduate students from across the nation recently seized theirs, spending the past two months at Texas A&M University immersed in all things academic research while exploring their potential for graduate study, courtesy of a signature National Science Foundation program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU).
Texas A&M is one of hundreds of institutions nationwide serving as host sites for the prestigious, grant-based summer platform intended to enhance undergraduate participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research. For eight to 10 weeks each summer, REU students gain invaluable experience in real-world scientific investigations as full participants in active research programs under the guidance of faculty and graduate student mentors. In addition, they receive both a stipend and housing for the duration of the program.
The Texas A&M College of Science has offered up to six different REU programs for at least two decades in a range of fields, including chemistry, mathematics, nuclear science, and physics and astronomy. Astronomy’s is the youngest, beginning in 2014, while Chemistry’s dates back to the late 1980s when the NSF first started the grant. Since 2004, the college also has helped sponsor an umbrella program, REU Summer Scholars, as a supplement intended to help minority students build a community within the overall university-wide REU system.
“I started our REU program to increase the awareness of Texas A&M astronomy across the country’s astronomy programs, particularly in terms of improving the quality of our graduate applicants,” said Dr. Jennifer Marshall, principal investigator and director for the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy-based REU in astronomical research and instrumentation. “Eleven years after many astronomers got here and after six years of offering the REU, our program is well-regarded by astronomers everywhere, and we now compete for graduate students with the top astronomy programs in the country. I like to think the REU program has at least a little to do with that.”
REU programs are highly competitive, often attracting applicants worldwide. Although hundreds of students might apply for any given program, only a dozen at most are hand-selected by program directors to participate.
“Research experiences are often a turning point, providing the spark that encourages students to continue down the path to careers in science,” said Dr. Holly C. Gaede, principal investigator and director for the Texas A&M Chemistry REU. “Unfortunately, not every college student has access to the quality research experiences and resources that we can provide here at Texas A&M University. It’s really rewarding to be able to connect talented and eager students with those kinds of opportunities. Most of our students use the REU program as a springboard into a science career, sometimes even beginning with graduate school at Texas A&M.”
For most groups across the campus, the program culminates with a daylong poster presentation, held Wednesday (July 31) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building lobby. The Texas A&M Science REU students in astronomical research and instrumentation, chemistry and nuclear science will be presenting from 10 a.m. to noon, while all three mathematics REU groups concluded their REU experience last week with a July 22-23 mini-conference. Nuclear science REU participants also get to present their work to the entire United States nuclear science community at the fall Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) meeting as part of the Conference Experience for Undergraduates, a poster session restricted to undergraduates who have done nuclear research.
As with any experience, however, results may vary, often revealing themselves in the otherwise routine, from group meetings to group outings.
“Sometime in the past few weeks, Molly [Aslin, a student at Mount Holyoke College] was showing some of her data from the experiment we ran, and it was stuff we had never seen before,” said Dr. Sherry J. Yennello, principal investigator and director for the Cyclotron Institute-based REU in nuclear science. “It answered a lot of questions about what we had seen in a previous data set. It also posed new questions. It had the whole group poking, prodding and asking questions for about an hour. And Molly was the expert in the room for this particular data.”
An energizing experience
For Dr. Anne J. Shiu, principal investigator and director for one of Texas A&M Mathematics’ three REU programs, it’s all about the energy in each class and their growth, along with the flexibility of the programs and successful balance between pure and applied math.
“Working with undergraduate research students is really energizing,” she said. “They bring a lot of new ideas and enthusiasm, and it’s great to see them grow throughout the summer.”
Heading into her 13th year of overseeing Texas A&M Chemistry’s REU program, Gaede decided to bundle the typical research theme — sustainable chemistry in 2019 — with a professional development component emphasizing the importance of science communication for all audiences.
“In addition to the traditional poster presentation format, our students each are finishing up videos about their projects that will be available on YouTube,” Gaede said.
While students’ reasons for choosing an REU program are as varied as their academic interests and potential career directions, University of Arizona senior Ryan Webster says he settled on Texas A&M because of the astronomy group’s extensive work with galaxies, which he had never studied before. In addition, he was intrigued by the observing trip to McDonald Observatory, given his career goal to become an observational astronomer. His advice for future REU participants? Start the application process early.
“Most applications are due in late January and early February, so start your essays and asking for letters of recommendation over winter break,” Webster said. “Also, if you are on the fence about applying to REUs, consider that the application process for these program is a fantastic — and free — practice run for applying to graduate schools!”
University of Oregon senior Odelia Hartl says the inspiring moments during the past 10 weeks in the astronomy REU have been too numerous to count, from Friday seminars and professor-hosted lunches to the unique connections made with her fellow REU students and the faculty.
“The people who decide to spend their life studying the universe all have something in common, and it was nice to feel a part of a community,” Hartl said. “I absolutely love the research I have been involved in and am certainly surprised at the amount of knowledge I have gained here.
“I can honestly say the REU program at Texas A&M gave me an opportunity that has already impacted my future and will continue to do so. It is a great environment to expose yourself to information, get involved with others who are already deep in the field, and get experience thinking in a manner that is required for rigorous research. I have had graduate school as a goal in mind for a while now, but this REU experience put the nail in the coffin. I am absolutely certain that this is what I want to do with my life, and now I am more excited than ever to get started with research.”
The grade on grad schools
Although Humboldt State University senior Carla Quintero had never been to Texas, she knew she was interested in applying to a couple of graduate programs in this state, including Texas A&M. Her favorite moments include the trip to McDonald Observatory — her first time doing observations at a facility that actually takes data — and the Mitchell Institute Star Parties, which she described as a fulfilling and humbling experience.
“I saw this REU as an opportunity to get to know the area, and especially to learn how the Department of Physics and Astronomy was organized as a whole,” Quintero said. “I am very grateful I was accepted to this program since it has been an amazing experience. I am currently set to graduate in May 2020, and this summer REU experience solidified my decision to apply to graduate programs in Texas, especially Texas A&M!”
University of South Dakota senior Seth Gerberding says he was drawn to the Texas A&M mathematics REU because of good financial support, the program’s overall strength and a project that used abstract concepts to address real-world issues — in his case, biological models. The program’s human component, however, proved to be the clincher.
“I liked that Texas A&M didn’t just look at your mathematical background; i.e., what classes you’ve taken, what research you’ve done, and what school you go to,” Gerberding explained. “They looked at a person’s character and what human qualities a person had, like perseverance, creativity, drive, etc. Texas A&M recognized that potential went beyond the classroom, and that a person’s experience or opportunities shape what kind work they can do.”
Gerberding said he “thoroughly enjoyed” being around and interacting with a collection of brilliant individuals and the priceless unquantifiable ah-ha! moments characterizing an overall experience that confirmed his future path: graduate school, a research-based career in either industry or a national laboratory and, overall, being brave.
“REUs are hard to get into, so the fact you were chosen means you are already ahead of a lot of other people,” Gerberding said. “Be brave. That’s typically a weird thing to say in mathematics, but all too often, undergraduates are scared of making mistakes or asking silly questions because they feel that other people will judge them. It doesn’t matter. Put your ideas out there, try new things and ask those seemingly silly questions. I asked lots of silly questions about linear algebra — I mean, really basic things, like how to take the determinant. But all those things helped me to not just become better in linear algebra, but to be better in my research. So, be brave!”
Participant and PI payoffs
Regardless of attitude, approach or end game, each REU experience ends up being memorable for participants and PIs alike.
“This year, we took an excursion to Dow in Lake Jackson and Freeport, where we were able to hear from experts on sustainable chemistry and tour the Dow Pack Studios, where packaging materials are tested,” Gaede said. “We were also able to see some of their research labs. It was good to hear that a big chemical company is putting into practice some of the principles we learned about this summer. The students also were able to network with several Dow scientists.”
For Marshall, the trip to McDonald Observatory remains a universal highlight along with the group’s community outreach activities.
“The students operate a telescope to conduct their own science observations, often for the first time,” she said. “Watching their Eureka! moments is very rewarding. The star parties that we’ve held at The Stella Hotel the last few years have also been a lot of fun. The REU students really get engaged, and it’s great to see turnouts of hundreds of local people and their kids in the summer.”
In some cases, the real payoffs aren’t realized until years down the road, much like they are through independent research, advanced studies and the inevitable collaborations, networks and professional relationships that develop along the way.
“In 2017, two REU students, Caitlin Lienkaemper and Zev Woodstock, found the answer to the main question they were focusing on that summer — just one or two days before their final presentations,” Shiu said. “It was pretty exciting for them to get the proof and presentation ready in such limited time, and I’m really proud of the resulting research article, which is still the most-cited among all the REU papers from my group so far. And Caitlin has continued working in this area. She’s now a Ph.D. student at Penn State, and I got to see her present her latest research at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, earlier this summer.”
For more information on summer REU programs in the College of Science, visit http://tx.ag/TAMUScienceREUs.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or email@example.com