A hands-on, foot-in-the-door experience

Students who aspire to do more in school then just take classes have just gotten a new opportunity to achieve their goals.

Recently, a new program has been opened to undergraduate students, allowing them to begin research any time they wish during college.

Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) is a program that began in the spring of 2001 at the notion of Rudy Schlaf, an assistant professor in electrical engineering.

The program is supported by Dean Louis Martin-Vega and Associate Dean of Research Bob Carnahan. Schlaf said he thinks it gives students an opportunity to advance in their field and to gain hands-on experience early on in their careers.

“I was an undergraduate researcher, too, and it made me understand why I had to take the classes,” Schlaf said. “It helped me not to flunk out and to pursue a career in science.”

The program is open to all College of Engineering students. Each department has an undergraduate research coordinator.

“Anyone from a freshman to a senior is welcome to join,” Schlaf said. “All they have to do is ask a professor to join his or her group. Once they find a professor who hires them, they need to fill out an application and submit it to the coordinator of their department.”

After students find a group they want to join, all that is needed is an interview with the hiring professor, Schlaf said.

“We are looking for undergraduates who have an open mind, who are curious and willing to work hard. I always look for eager students who want to do something new, who want to seek out new frontiers,” Schlaf said.

One of the students participating is Roy Gargagliano, who is seeking a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

Gargagliano’s field of research centers around an Ultrahigh Vacuum (UHV) system for materials research.

“I started out writing macros for a program that helps us evaluate data,” Gargagliano said. “It’s a specialized program used to collate data from the different measurements we make. Then I did measurements on the UHV system, advised by doctor (Martin) Beerbom a (postdoctoral associate) in Schlaf’s group, and now I am able to perform experiments on my own.”

Although there were several projects available to Gargagliano he said he chose the one that best fit his future career.

“There are so many things to do research on, but I chose the one that is aligned with the field I want to get into after getting my degree,” Gargagliano said. “It’s useful, and it helps me in understanding what I’m learning.”

Gargagliano said he is now helping a colleague with her research. Zuzana Bednarova is a visiting graduate student from the Czech Republic, and she is writing a thesis related to nickel contacts on silicon carbide (SiC).

Silicon can withstand high temperatures and retain semi-conducting properties under extreme conditions, allowing the devices to perform in harsh environments.

“We are researching how to make (electrical) contacts and what makes a good contact. Eventually, this kind of research ends in manufacture,” Gargagliano said. “The reason why we are using SiC is because it’s one of the best understood materials in the world and one of the most important for contacts.”

Not only does Gargagliano get preparation for his future career, he said he finds other perks in the program.

“Working with this information reinforces what I’m studying and expands my knowledge of the concepts I learn about,” Gargagliano said.

Also, his research has given him an idea for a thesis topic, Gargagliano said.

“I’m not settled on the final thesis yet, but my professor has suggested it should be on interfaces and contacts for several semi-conducting materials,” Gargagliano said.

Seniors Nhat Nguyen and Yohan Prevot, both majoring in electrical engineering, are partners in another project under the guidance of Moreno and are working with equipment that can be used for and applied in the Digital Signal Processing (DSP) field, they said.

“We have to use the DSP boards and know how to program the chip to work it,” Prevot said. “These chips, for example, can be used in a cell phone to help you get constant signal as you move around and talk. They protect against distortion and electrical noise.”

The DSP board can be used for various purposes.

“It can be used in voice analysis, digital imaging, anything digital,” Nguyen said. “Everything is digital now — computers, TV. It’s the future, and it’s something I want to do later.”

This research program gives both Nguyen and Prevot an opportunity for a broader exploration of the problem once they get to graduate school, Prevot said.

“There is no class that can teach you how to use the DSP board or program it,” Prevot said. “Before I started working here I wasn’t knowledgeable about it. In the last five or six months I became proficient.”

The program has also been a great mind-expanding experience for all who are a part of it, Prevot said.

“I recommend this program to every engineer I meet,” Prevot said. “Unlike other programs we are always making progress and have to write about our achievements. It’s fun. It gives you knowledge in your field and practical applications.”

Nguyen agreed.

“It’s an alternative to co-ops and internships,” he said. “We are always doing something, and it’s a good preparation for a thesis in grad school.”

And as Schlaf points out, the research is not a teaching lab. The experiments are not the same ones conducted every year and by all students.

“We are on the cutting edge of research,” Schlaf said. “If you get involved, you’re sure to be involved in something inspiring and life-changing.”

The program, which is sponsored by Martin-Vega and in part through National Science Foundation REU supplements, is an attractive option for students who choose to get involved. The only problem that may exist is that not enough students are taking an advantage of it, Schlaf said.

“Students will always be students,” Prevot said. “They might hear about this program and say, ‘Hey, that’s cool,’ but not do anything about it. We have to start something in their head — show them that it’s important and that it can lead to something bigger. Maybe then they will catch onto it.”

Contact Olga Robakat oraclefeatures@yahoo.com