It Pays to Discover
Novelist Nora Neale Hurston called research “formalized curiosity … poking and prying with a purpose.” Astronaut Neal Armstrong’s take was that “Research is creating new knowledge.”
By either definition, a job doing research is a worthy gig, and that’s what you’ll hear from students who did undergraduate research at Mines. These jobs offer a chance to earn cash, hone skills and see what a scientist’s life is like. Here’s a look at how such positions impact all involved.
You’ll find two main ways to conduct research as an undergraduate. One is largely a summer program that encourages students to visit another campus, although students can apply at their own school as well. Called the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), this National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative provides funding so that students can conduct investigations while earning stipends and, in many cases, being supported with housing and travel assistance.
Current REU opportunities at Mines are listed here, and this site will be updated in coming months. The NSF program has an overview page as well as a place where students can search for opportunities coast-to-coast in a variety of scholarly disciplines.
“We had one REU program in metallurgy from 2011 to 2013,” says Kip Findley, associate professor in the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering (MME). That initiative centered around metallurgical design for transportation infrastructure, such as bridges. “Over a three-year period, we hosted 35 undergraduate researchers from more than 25 different institutions,” Findley says.
“From a university standpoint, REU programs provide a mechanism to attract and recruit future graduate students,” he adds. One such student is Joe Jankowski, who did his undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, but changed directions after his summer at Mines. “Before I did the research here, I was working in a solid-state physics lab looking at electronic materials—superconductors and things like that,” he says. “I came here, found out I really liked physical metallurgy and switched gears.”
The project that won Jankowski over was a look at potential high-entropy alloys. “When you mix metals together—such as aluminum and iron—you end up with an intermetallic that generally has material properties that are worse than if you didn’t mix the metals,” Jankowski notes. His mission was to find a mix of five or more metals that created an alloy with desirable properties. Jankowski is now working on the development of high-temperature structural aluminum alloys as her pursues his doctorate here at Mines.
Spending a summer at some other university isn’t the only way to conduct research as an undergraduate. The Mines campus has plenty of year-round options for undergrads, and many of these opportunities will soon be advertised via the Daily Blast as well as in separate emails.
“We get money from the state to support undergraduate research,” says Tzahi Cath, professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of the program that administers this state money. It runs like this: Cath and his committee invite professors to write brief descriptions of their projects. Interested students apply by writing a short piece on what they’re going to do and deliverables they anticipate turning in at year-end.
“The school provides the student with $1,500 and the prof is supposed to match it with another $500 for the year,” he continues, adding that most students earn around $11 or $12 per hour.
How many such positions exist? Last year, Cath says there were nearly 150 students involved in this program and, often, students have their own research to manage.
“One thing people are afraid of is that they’ll wind up washing dishes in the lab,” Cath jokes. “We try to give students an independent research project so that they’re not just washing glassware or doing laboratory maintenance,” Findley adds. “They’re doing experiments or characterization methods or something that’s going to produce results. These students are going to have a story to put together in the end.”
Even if student researchers do wash some glassware, that’s not a bad thing, says Cath, whose area of study is water and wastewater research. “When I was a graduate student, I didn’t allow anyone to touch my glassware in the lab,” he says. “I washed my own because if you screw up on washing glassware, that contaminates your sample, and your research is worth nothing. Even washing dishes is an important task that needs to be done.”
What research delivers
Why does Mines care about providing undergraduate research opportunities? For one thing, it feeds the scientific pipeline. “These programs recognize the need for people with advanced educations in science, technology, engineering and math,” Findley says.
This past year, he conducted a survey of the 150 or so students who made research their extracurricular job. “Two-thirds of the students had never participated in undergraduate research before,” he says. “The vast majority said it enhanced their understanding of science and engineering concepts, and nearly two-thirds said they had more interest in their major after participating in the program.”
Undergraduate research programs also help professors find great doctoral candidates to invest in. Since most doctoral students in STEM subjects have a strong chance of being supported with tuition assistance and a stipend, faculty look for undergraduates who’ve already proven their interest and abilities. “It costs me more than $50,000 to have a graduate student here at school,” Cath says. “If I know a student, it’s easy for me to invest in that student versus another. Most of my graduate students started as undergraduates working in my group.”
Many such graduate students discovered their love of research through their undergraduate projects. Taylor Jacobs, for instance, is now working on a doctorate in metallurgical and materials engineering, but he started his studies at Mines as an undergrad working on a degree in mining engineering. After doing two years of research related to explosives, he knew that wasn’t his path, so he switched over to a research project in the Advanced Steel Processing and Products Research Center.
Jacobs spent his junior and senior years at Mines working 10 to 12 hours per week with a Gleeble, a piece of equipment that simulates processes used in steel mills or materials processing. “I took parameters that a masters’ student had designed and did a separate study looking at post-processing heat treatments,” Jacobs explains. “If you can figure out a good heat treatment, you may be able to improve strength if strength is lacking.”
Jacobs says his undergraduate research earned him a summer internship, and the company he worked for offered him a job. He turned that one down but, when he finishes his PhD in December, he’s already got a position lined up at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Nohemi Almaraz, who is working on her master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering, also found her path via undergraduate research projects. “They opened my perspective,” she says. Almaraz did two projects. One was in microbiology, looking at microbes that can survive extreme environments such as the Great Salt Lake. She also did undergrad research related to the treatment of oil and gas wastewater, which is what she’s studying for her master’s and, ultimately, her PhD.
Unlike Jacobs, Almaraz wants to take her doctorate to industry. She hopes to help the oil and gas industry “better manage and treat wastewater so it can be used for secondary applications, like irrigation,” she says. “A research job is the best way to get hands-on experience and develop the critical thinking that engineers need to find solutions to problems.”
A leg up
Joris Hochanadel, an MME senior, works on projects related to submerged arc welding. He started during his sophomore year. “I didn’t know much about metallurgy at this point. As I got into my metallurgy classes, I understood them much better than I would have without this research experience,” he says. “It put me ahead of some of the other students.”
Rachel English, another MME senior, has been conducting research on corrosion of steel caps that help seal in radiation from spent-nuclear fuel holding casks. She echoes what Hochanadel said: “This project put me at an advantage over my peers,” she says. “I know what’s going on with the materials, and everyone else is still learning.”
The same sentiment comes from Josh Pelz, a Mines undergraduate student until he graduated with an MME degree this past May. “Research allowed me to put two and two together, to apply what I was learning in classes to what I was doing in the lab. It helped the lessons stick better,” he says.
It also steered Pelz toward the PhD he’ll be pursuing at the University of California, San Diego, beginning this fall. There, he’ll focus on ceramics, a field that appealed to him after he designed an attachment for a 3D printer that enabled him to print ceramic objects.
“It was impossible with my course load to work full-time, but I worked part-time,” says Pelz. “One good thing about undergraduate research is that often you have very flexible hours, so it can be better than working at a fast-food joint or some other job.”
Danika Ahoor, a chemical engineering senior, has been working in the Conoco Phillips WE2ST Center, which aims to address environmental issues surrounding oil and gas extraction and production. Her project left her “passionate about taking water that’s polluted and making it cleaner.”
While Danika hasn’t decided if she’ll continue to graduate studies or enter the workforce, she’s still a fan of undergraduate research. “You get a lot of industry experience as well as skills that you’ll need in your career,” she says. “This is really the best job you can have as an undergraduate.”