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Cultivating young scientists

August 28, 2019

With NSF support, NIU faculty engage students from across the country in research

NIU professors have been busy planting seeds in recent summers, and the crops seem to expand each year.

But they’re not growing fruits and vegetables. Rather, professors from a wide range of disciplines are cultivating young scientists from outside the university. The efforts are part of  the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) opportunities.

Since 2012, NIU has hosted about a dozen REU summer programs, with roughly $1.7 million in NSF support. No summer has been more active for NIU than 2019, with faculty running three separate REUs involving 21 students, plus high school and community college teachers.

While some students were from Illinois institutions, many traveled to DeKalb from distant locations, including as far away as Puerto Rico, Maine, Kentucky and California. For their participation, the students were paid $500 per week over eight to 10 weeks—plus food, lodging and even travel expenses.

“The aim is to nurture young scientists, especially those from community colleges or institutions who don’t have research agendas,” says Jerry Blazey, vice president for Research and Innovation Partnerships. “REU funding proposals are very competitive, so these programs reflect well on our faculty and demonstrate NIU’s commitment to providing access and STEM opportunities to students from all walks of life.”

Ali Fraize works in a laboratory at NIU. She was part of an REU program run by physics professors Jahred Adelman and Mike Eads.

For the third consecutive year, geology professor Melissa Lenczewski led a summer REU program focusing on increasing Latinx participation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields through research on groundwater quality in Mexico. This year, she worked with six Latinx students who came to study at NIU and later traveled with Lenczewski to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for water sampling and analyses.

“We’re fostering a new generation of scientists by exposing these students to the scientific method,” says Lenczewski, who heads up NIU’s Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy. “Students learn how the research process works, how to problem solve, and how to collect and analyze data.”

REUs have recruitment benefits as well, she says. One of her participants from past years will be starting at NIU this fall; another is interested in NIU for graduate school. 

Los Angeles native Luis Bautista was among Lenczewski’s students this summer. He’ll be transitioning this fall from a community college to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’ll pursue a degree in physics.

Los Angeles native Luis Bautista (third from left) and other participants in Professor Melissa Lenczewski’s REU examine equipment for their research on water quality in Mexico.

“I really wanted to explore branches of physics, which is what the REU offered,” he says, adding that he used geophysical instruments to investigate the Yucatan’s geology.

“It’s a much different experience using physics concepts to do research, as opposed to learning about them in a classroom,” says Bautista, who intends to go on to graduate school. “It’s helped me to see what I can do with a physics degree. I really do plan on pursuing something in geophysics just because of this opportunity.”

Ralph Wheeler and James Horn in chemistry and biochemistry and Jahred Adelman and Mike Eads in physics also led REU programs this summer. Their projects involved teachers from other institutions.

“We had a Research Experiences for Teachers component that allowed us to bring two high school science teachers to campus to perform the same type of research as the undergraduates,” Adelman says.

Teachers received a $750 weekly stipend for their work and participation. Projects involved particle physics, beams and accelerators, and condensed-matter physics and materials science.

“The teachers can then stay informed about current physics research topics and are also able to bring their experiences back to their home classrooms,” Adelman says.

Carson Cohen and Lyndsay Arrowood explore new polymer-based chemical sensors, as part of the REU program run by Professors Jim Horn and Ralph Wheeler in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

The REU run by Wheeler and Horn brought three teachers from primarily undergraduate institutions to campus with their students, as well as five additional students from other institutions.

“So some of the students actually ended up getting two mentors, their college professor and an NIU professor,” says Wheeler, who chairs the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. This was the third consecutive summer for his REU program.

Students were required to make presentations every two weeks. The work helped them develop culminating research presentations for the Summer Research Symposium held in early August, which also featured the work of NIU undergraduates, including those involved in the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP).

“We do leverage the activities of SROP—our students participate in some of their workshops and vice versa,” Wheeler says. “I’m convinced SROP helped us get our REU program because it demonstrates our commitment to undergraduate research in a very tangible way. Concentrated summer research has tremendous benefit for students.”

Lenczewski and Adelman will offer REU summer sessions in 2020 as well, and Wheeler is applying for a continuation of his program.