The challenges and rewards of undergraduate research
Why would an engineering undergraduate student with a full schedule of demanding classes consider adding a research component to his or her workload?
A) Students who take advantage of undergraduate research obtain real-world experience in critical thinking and problem solving, making them more attractive to future employers.
B) A taste of research as an undergraduate allows a student to work closely with a professor/mentor in his or her chosen field and may open that student’s eyes to the possibilities of graduate school and a rewarding future in research.
C) With a research project, an undergraduate student can gain graduate credit prior to graduation and develop expertise that will enable him or her to immediately begin graduate-level research as a grad student.
D) Working in a research lab gives students the value-added educational opportunity to directly apply and make real-world connections with the information that is presented in class.
E) Those students who formally participate in the College of Engineering’s undergraduate research program may be eligible to receive $1,000 each semester for their participation.
F) All of the above!
In the spring 2008 semester, 63 engineering students participated in the College of Engineering’s undergraduate research program, and many more worked in various research labs for professors throughout the college. These profiles of bright and articulate young men and women discussing their research projects exemplify both the high caliber of the college’s students and the top notch research that is a hallmark of Mizzou Engineering and the entire University of Missouri system.
The National Science Foundation has recognized MU as one of the nation’s top ten universities for successfully integrating research into undergraduate education.
For more information about engineering undergraduate research, visit the website firstname.lastname@example.org, contact the research office at (573) 882-4377, or e-mail your questions to FordJH@missouri.edu.
Even before she stepped foot onto the University of Missouri campus as a biological engineering freshman, Emily Spradling’s bright future snaked out before her as the yellow brick road did for Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”
While still in high school, Spradling had applied to and was accepted into the Conley Scholars Program, guaranteeing her admission into MU’s medical school upon the successful completion of her undergraduate degree at Mizzou – no preparatory classes and no MCAT, the dreaded medical college admissions test. Because she didn’t have that pressure, Spradling, now a senior, said she had more time for other things.
She first heard of Assistant Professor John Viator’s bioengineering work with lasers during her junior year. She contacted him and then applied for and was awarded Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (LS UROP) funding to work in his lab.
Spradling’s research involves the photoacoustic detection of cancer cells in blood, one of Viator’s specialties. “When a patient has a melanoma removed, there is no way to know if it will spread since it can’t be detected until a tumor forms,” explains Spradling. “But Dr. Viator’s work is aimed at finding circulating cancer cells before they metastasize (spread and grow in other parts of the body).”
Lasers at minutely altered wavelengths will illuminate only cancer cells in the blood, causing them to absorb the light, become heated, and expand. When pressure is released, it creates a detectable sound wave that can be measured, eventually allowing for easy and efficient detection and potential early and less invasive treatment.
“Currently our technique searches for melanoma cells in the white blood cell layer of centrifuged blood samples,” said Spradling. “It would be easier to detect them in the relatively clear and more abundant plasma layer, and if the procedure is commercialized it could be much less expensive.”
Spradling adds melanoma cells to blood samples and tests them in order to develop a baseline. “She’s doing fantastic work,” said Viator. “She has worked on two projects in my lab and was the first author of a paper presented at a Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) conference in January.”
At a meeting earlier this year of the Griffiths Leadership Society for Women, Spradling met an MU alumna who serves as CEO of a medical instrument company in San Antonio, Texas, and is using optoacoustic timography for the detection of breast cancer. She hired Spradling for a summer internship based on her undergraduate research.
“I’m so happy that my research worked into a job,” said Spradling, who plans to return to MU in the fall to attend medical school. “But I’m keeping my options open. I want to wait and see what happens.”
Also working in Viator’s lab on photoacoustic detection of cancer cells last semester was a University of Missouri bioengineering freshman, Devin McCormack. Though the project he is working on is related to Spradling’s, his path to the lab was quite different.
The young man began working in the lab when he was still a student at Columbia Rock Bridge High School. He met Viator on a tour of the researcher’s lab, located in MU’s Bond Life Sciences Center. “When he heard I was good in math and science, Dr. Viator asked me if I would be interested in working in his lab,” said McCormack.
McCormack’s research project involves the photoacoustic detection of metastatic melanoma cells, but rather than trying to detect them in blood, he is working with a new procedure to detect them in sentinel lymph nodes.
Lymph nodes are small organs found in the neck, underarms, chest, abdomen, and groin of the human body whose job it is to trap harmful substances traveling through the body’s lymph system. The sentinel node is the first lymph node beyond a primary tumor.
McCormack explained that presently diagnoses are made by visual examination of cross section slides of sentinel lymph nodes 100 microns in thickness, but that it is impossible to look at every cross section.
“We are attempting to mechanize the detection procedure so that it is possible to look at all of the slides,” said McCormack. “We’re using photoacoustics to pulse different colors of light into the cross sections, which are absorbed by the dark colored melanoma cells. They heat up, expand slightly, and produce a sound wave.”
He describes the project prototype as a sort of a conveyer belt. As light is pulsed on each slide, it makes waveforms on an oscilloscope, spiking when it detects a cancer cell.
McCormack regularly meets with Viator to discuss results and to talk about where the project is headed.
“Devin is doing an outstanding job on this project,” said Viator, noting that the work is being accomplished with a Department of Surgery seed grant.
Because he is at an early stage in his education, there is lot that is new to him, but the research provides a practical application for what he is learning in class. “I chose biological engineering because of the lab work, so working with Dr. Viator is great,” said McCormack.
Steven McKee, a University of Missouri junior in mechanical and aerospace engineering, decided he wanted to become an engineer about the time he and his dad finished refurbishing his first car—a 1968 Ford Mustang.
McKee has always loved cars, and this summer he is getting paid for his passion with an internship at Leggett & Platt’s Idea Center in Carthage, Mo., where he is working on vehicle design. And though his undergrad research project also involves vehicles, the NASA-funded research project he is working on under the supervision of faculty mentor Professor Craig Kluever takes aim at space shuttle navigation.
“He’s one of the top students I’ve seen in 15 years,” said Kluever. “He came in as a Discovery Fellow with the MU Honors College. As a freshman, he was part of the e-research program—the only freshman and the only engineer. He gave the first class presentation of the semester and it was great.”
“We’re working with a computer program to create navigational and trajectory paths for space shuttles,” explained McKee, who is working to develop the atmospheric entry phase of a shuttle expedition.
“We start with a set of three random points—a trajectory—where each represents atmospheric density and altitude, then we create a program where we change the windows of data to attempt to land the ship in a certain place,” said McKee. The program provides an update of the function in real time for each atmospheric point. Four differential equations are solved simultaneously and continuously to determine the position, velocity, and acceleration of an incoming shuttle, McKee added.
“Mars has a dynamic atmosphere,” said McKee, to demonstrate the variables he is working with. “You can’t accurately predict how to land something because the temperature and wind speed can change up to 40 percent, and the atmosphere is too thin to make corrections.”
“The research is going very well,” said McKee, who also serves as a tutor in calculus and entry-level thermodynamics at MU’s Learning Center.
“He hadn’t even done differential equations when he first came, which you have to have for simulations with the software for this project,” mused Kluever. “I tried to keep it simple, but he picked it up right away. He was getting good, meaningful research results even as a freshman,” he added.
“It’s exciting to be doing something that interests me and is applicable to real world stuff,” McKee says of the research. “It’s been great to get involved with this project and to work with Dr. Kluever. It has led me to a lot of things.”
So full of enthusiasm for his undergraduate research project utilizing recycled beverage bottles as lightweight fill, James Bryce, a senior civil engineering student, planned to field-test it on his mother’s farm in southern Missouri over the summer if the work hadn’t progressed to that point in the lab by semester’s end.
Before landing in the University of Missouri’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, Bryce attended community college in Springfield, Mo., worked as an electrician, and played guitar in a band. His plan was to be a professional musician until he met his wife Rebecca, who is working on her master’s in clinical social work at MU, at a coffee shop gig.
Bryce came to Mizzou Engineering as a sophomore in the fall of 2006 and immediately met and began working with John Bowders, MU’s Croft professor in civil and environmental engineering.
“I knew that I eventually wanted to attend graduate school and was told the best way to get accepted is to do undergraduate research, so I talked to Dr. Bowders, and he took me on,” said Bryce, who initially worked on a timber project.
In the meantime, Bowders and Yong Chai Chang, a visiting professor from Korea who specializes in soft soils and soil repair, had begun work on Chang’s idea that there was real potential in using plastic bottles for geotechnical applications.
“Dr. Bowders used recycled bottles for one project and saw additional possibilities and wanted to continue with it,” said Bryce. “In the fall, he handed me a project to measure the creep analysis of bottles under a sustained load saying that he thought it might turn out to be a really important project.”
Using bottles from the City of Columbia’s Material Recovery Center, Bryce has been collecting data in the college’s soil mechanics lab on how much long-term deflection exists within a number of constructed scenarios. “The data has followed our expected projections,” said Bryce, adding that he is poised to write a paper on the findings.
“Using bottles with retaining walls can greatly reduce lateral pressures,” said Bryce. “It improves drainage and can save money in construction because a concrete retaining wall can be much thinner. This field is wide open and every day we think of new applications. The rapid repair of levees is one example.”
“James came on board in the fall and took over,” said Bowders. “You point him in the right direction, and he just shines. He has made exceptional progress on this project.”
Keenly interested in engineering as it applies to public policy, Bryce applied for and was one of 12 students nationally to be accepted into the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE) program with just such a focus. He will spend nine weeks at George Washington University rubbing shoulders with leaders in the transportation industry and in government.
“This project took me all the way to Washington, D.C,” Bryce said of the opportunity. “Dr. Bowders and the research I have worked on in his lab have really given me the chance to explore and grow as an engineer and as a person.”
Russell Borduin’s undergraduate research projects at the University of Missouri could be described as a boy’s research dream. His initial project involved helping to plan and present a LEGO robotics camp for children, and his most recent research entails computational modeling of insect behavior.
Borduin works in the lab of Satish Nair, a professor in electrical and computer engineering (ECE), under the direction of doctoral candidate Ashwin Mohan. Borduin, a senior in ECE, and Mohan have been collaborating with Rex Cocroft, an MU associate professor in biological science, looking at the social interactions of Umbonia crassicornis, a type of leafhopper.
“When they are young, these leafhoppers live on a branch together, and their mother stays with them to protect them,” said Borduin. “Our work involves modeling the emergent behavior of their collective response to predator attacks.”
“How the bugs signal is not well understood,” he continued. “When they are in groups, only a few nymphs can see an attacker, but somehow a signal gets down the line to the mother, and we are interested in finding how this happens.”
Cocroft supplied observational data such as group vibrational signals recorded through the branch with an accelerometer, which the biologist theorized were the mother’s cue that danger lurked. Based on the data they were provided, the engineers are using mathematical models to help simplify and explain what is happening, producing computational models of social behavior.
Insects’ mechanical signaling and sensing may mean the difference between life and death in regard to such things as food, defense of the colony, resource sharing, and mating. The science of understanding how insects signal and communicate with one another has far-reaching ecological implications, both within and far beyond the organisms’ social realm.
“If the leafhoppers were using vibrational signals, the communication would happen quickly, but there is a slower progression, so it is probably something else,” said Borduin. We are continuing to work on that model. It could be touch-based.”
“Russell has helped initiate the interdisciplinary link between our lab and the Cocroft lab, and the feedback has been positive,” said Mohan of the undergraduate’s work. “He is a first author on a conference paper on agent-based social simulation that has been submitted to the 2008 ASME Dynamic Systems and Control Conference.
Over the summer, Borduin will spend time in Santa Rena, Brazil, with the Engineers Without Borders program. “The village was given land by the government for a school and a soccer field, but there has been a problem with standing water because pipes are clogged,” said Borduin, who serves as the Mizzou Engineering chapter’s president. “A survey has been done, and we will go down to implement the solution, though we may have to go back several times.”
This fall, Borduin will continue his education, and his research, as he heads to graduate school at the University of Illinois, where he will work on his master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Nichole Hillstrom and Sarah Harper
Nichole Hillstrom and Sarah Harper both chose to attend the University of Missouri as engineering majors while still in high school, but neither decided on an Industrial Engineering emphasis until they came to campus.
Now seniors, both young women are happy with their choices, and after they complete their undergraduate research internships this summer at Hallmark, both will return to complete master’s degrees in business in the MU Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department’s (IMSE) five-year BSIE/MBA program.
“I’ve worked at Hallmark the past two summers, first in distribution and then manufacturing. This summer I think they will split my time between quality control and working with CELDi research,” said Hillstrom.
As one of IMSE’s corporate partners in the National Science Foundation-sponsored Center for Engineering Logistics and Distribution (CELDi) program, Hallmark is entitled to a 12-month company-specific research project conducted by Mizzou Engineering under the direction of Jim Noble, an associate professor in IMSE.
“One aspect that CELDi provides us is the opportunity to get undergraduate students working together with graduate students and faculty on industry sponsored research projects. I think it provides great experience for the students and the opportunity for companies to see what our students can do before they graduate,” said Noble.
“Hallmark’s distribution center is getting crowded,” said Harper, describing the project the two young women are tackling. “We will work to help them optimize their picking floor layout in regard to stocking, fulfillment, shipping, and retail costs. It’s a huge product-picking area divided into zones. When they have a new product, they need to determine the best location for it.”
“In addition, the demand for existing products is quite dynamic, adding to the complexity of the problem,” adds Hillstrom. “We’re working to standardize the process for which items go where, and generally identifying areas that can be improved.”
The pair is working with different data sets and is in the process of looking at what product cartons are taken from the warehouse, where they’re being taken, and the shipment dates.
“The situation is further complicated by the fact that the company has two lines, Hallmark and Ambassador. Some items can only be sold in one or the other,” said Harper.
“We’re working to develop an algorithm that will examine the costs related to placing an item in one location versus another to optimize the entire picking floor plan,” said Hillstrom. “The goal is to develop a computer program that will help with that.”
“The result of this project has the potential for significant savings once we implement our new approach for the picking floor layout,” said Noble. “Both Sarah and Nichole are contributing significantly to the success of this project.”
As a CELDi project, whatever the young researchers come up with will be shared with the center’s national academic partners and industrial members group so that the research they are doing not only benefits Hallmark, but other partner companies facing the same challenges.
“I like the problem-oriented CELDi project,” said Harper. “It’s exciting to be attacking a real industry issue and using what I’ve learned since I’ve been at MU to solve it.”
Nathan Salmon and Chris Spain
As enthusiastic as they are about their undergraduate research project, Chris Spain and Nathan Salmon, a senior and a junior in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) at the University of Missouri, are sometimes reluctant to discuss its specific details.
“I never thought I would be spending time thinking and reading about cockroaches,” said Spain about the swarm intelligence project he and Salmon are modeling on the behavior of roaches. “When talking to family and friends, I usually explain what I am doing in broad terms.”
Swarm intelligence involves observing the complex collective behavior of insect or animal groups, and then modeling that behavior with computer algorithms to computationally solve real-world problems. Spain and Salmon are modeling cockroach behavior.
It was Tim Havens, a Ph.D. candidate in ECE, who saw an article on Slash.org discussing newly discovered intricate social behavior in cockroaches. “In addition to their well-known distaste for light, cockroaches enjoy the company of friends,” said Havens. “Swarm intelligence is a huge field, and it’s quite the fad, but I don’t know anyone who is using cockroaches.”
The graduate student discussed the possibilities with his advisor, ECE and Computer Science Professor Jim Keller, who suggested that Havens find some interested undergraduate students to delve into it, and Spain and Salmon volunteered.
“A lot of people forget that science is often inspired by nature,” said Spain. “It’s been shown that simple behaviors by insects result in more complex group behavior, or emergent behavior. For example, one neuron is responsible for simple functions, but many together do complex things.”
“We’ve made the program modular—number of roaches, friends, hunger, lengths of time, etc.,” said Salmon. “Then each roach, or particle, has some variables assigned to it and we run the program with random placement of particles.”
“Perhaps the darkest spot in the room is the best solution,” said Spain, explaining how the algorithm works. “The particles would conform in a clumping behavior then go back and do their own thing—the simplest behavior. There might be several solutions, but there is always a best solution.”
“There is a random element,” adds Salmon. “It won’t run the same every time. With particle swarm optimization, the more you run it the better results you will get. You change one aspect and you change it all.”
The pair notes that swarm intelligence based on ant behavior can be used in applications such as the routing of telecommunications networks. Data derived from algorithms measuring bird swarm behavior has been applied to the human neural network to mimic speech generation, and swarm intelligence derived from bee behavior has been used by Google to increase ad revenues.
“We hope to use our cockroach models to solve real-world problems involving function optimization, robot navigation, and robot goal-seeking,” said Spain, who plans to continue researching in the same field as he works on his master’s degree.
“I’m a big fan of anything that saves time,” said Salmon, who says there is a high probability he will go to graduate school. “Using computers to quickly come up with a solution that could otherwise take days or weeks is a perfect example.”
The pair has submitted a paper to the 2008 IEEE Swarm Intelligence Symposium titled “Roach Infestation Optimization.”
“I’m pretty impressed with them,” said Havens of the research pair “They’ve come up with great ideas and taken a small idea and made it into a cool research project.”
Making a difference in the world is important to Michael Gordon, a senior in chemical engineering at the University of Missouri.
“I came to Mizzou wanting to get into alternative energy,” said Gordon, “and chemical seemed to have the most opportunities.”
Since his sophomore year, Gordon has worked in Associate Professor Galen Suppes’ lab on a variety of applications that involve activated carbon.
“The research I am working on involves optimizing carbon for specialty applications,” said Gordon. “In the lab, corn cobs are turned to carbon through chemical treatment and pyrolysis, or burning the ground cobs in an oxygen-free environment.”
Gordon explained that one application is methane storage for natural gas usage in vehicles. Because the porous carbon cakes have a large surface area, a large quantity of methane can be stored at relatively low pressure, a real plus in alternative fuel applications.
Another focus is using carbon cakes in super capacitors to store electrical energy. “The benefit is that they can be quickly charged and discharged and could eventually be used in electrical cars and batteries which normally take a long time to charge.”
“We are now able to repeatedly produce ninety-five percent of the Department of Energy’s target for methane storage for natural gas vehicles,” said Gordon. He explained that his work with the carbon, which in the past was difficult to duplicate, helped Dr. Suppes’ lab to realize repeated results.
“When my graduate student completed his Ph.D, Michael became the laboratory expert on our activated carbon synthesis,” said Suppes, who is very pleased with Gordon’s work. “Within a year, he was conducting parametric studies that contributed to our understanding of the activated carbon and allowed us to maintain a high quality control.”
In addition to his studies and lab responsibilities, Gordon was a member of Mizzou Engineering’s first Chem-E car in 2007 and this year is a TigerGen team member helping to develop the College’s first hydrogen fuel vehicle.
This fall Gordon will work at a co-op position as a process engineer with Unilever, a home and personal care product manufacturer, based in Jefferson City. He will return to continue his studies at Mizzou Engineering the winter/spring 2009 semester.
“I’ve gotten a lot out of the research,” said Gordon. “It’s given me a hands-on experience working with chemicals and equipment. I feel like I’m making a difference with pioneering research – working on something that no one else is doing.”
Something has to give in the busy life of Kevin Karsch, soon to be a junior with a double major in computer science and math at the University of Missouri, but it won’t be his undergraduate research.
“Even though my mother and other relatives attended MU and highly recommended it, the selling point for me was the chance to do undergraduate research,” said Karsch. “I wanted the opportunity to get a more applied education.”
“There are so many connections that you can make in class with your research,” he said, referring to the 3-D imaging of the brain he is doing under the direction of his faculty mentor, Ye Duan, an MU assistant professor in computer science.
The goal of the research project is to make explicit models of different parts of the brain to use in Duan’s research related to autism.
“We do a lot of shape analysis using image slices from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), working closely with medical students at the University Hospital’s neuro-imaging lab,” said Karsch. “We create contours of brain structures like the corpus callosum from the MRIs, a process also known as segmentation.”
He explains that points are assigned to specific areas on the models to create data sets that can be computationally analyzed and used to compare different parts of the brain.
“We need to get the structure as perfect as possible,” said Karsch. “We are trying to determine phenotypic—physical—differences in the human brain between people who have autism and those who don’t so that doctors in the medical field can look for a genotypic cause.”
Karsch is a member of the MU Honors College, and last year was a national finalist for the Computing Research Association’s Undergraduate Award. In April 2008, he learned that he was one of six Missouri students—two from Mizzou Engineering—to earn a Barry M. Goldwater Fellowship worth $7,500 toward his tuition for the upcoming academic year.
“Kevin is one of my sharpest students,” said Duan. “He’s self-motivated and works well on his own and as part of a team. He will apply for a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship next year,” he added. “He really has a shot at it.”
“I really enjoy research,” said Karsch, who plans to eventually earn a doctorate degree. “It makes my class time more beneficial. I like it that I am able to see how what I am learning applies to what I will do for my career.”