Bridging the gap to graduate school: Spears gains research experience at REU over the summer

September 13, 2023

Nia Spears in front of her research poster

Before this summer, Nia Spears, a sophomore civil engineering major from Steele, Missouri, had never conducted research. Now, she says she feels prepared for graduate school, thanks to a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation. Spears spent this last summer participating in in a sustainable transportation REU at the University of Delaware and is spreading the word about how beneficial these programs can be for students.

“I don’t think a lot of students know what an REU is,” she said. “It’s not talked about as much as on-campus research or getting an internship or co-op. I think a lot of people would benefit from going to an REU, especially before getting into on-campus research because you can apply to programs tailored to your interests.”

Spears plans to participate in more REUs in addition to internships to gain more research experience over the summer before applying to graduate school.

“I enjoyed the REU this summer a lot; it was a great experience,” Spears said. “It’s also nice to have a close relationship with a professor at another university to expand my professional network.”

This past summer, Spears’ project explored dry film thickness as a narrow aspect of her REU mentor’s research into steel bridge safety. She analyzed data from bridges and created visualizations to look for data discrepancies and determine whether dry film thickness is an important indicator of when bridges need to be serviced.

“We found it was a good way to test the corrosive layer on a bridge,” Spears said. “But it wasn’t the only factor. We didn’t have time to look into the built environment or how much sunlight particular spots on the bridge gets, which could mean that different places on the bridge need to be serviced more frequently.”

Spears says that there is a small community of researchers looking into this and that graduate students at the university will continue her research now that the REU has ended. Now that she is back at Mizzou, her eyes are open to exploring different research topics.

“I’m interested in sustainable materials research here,” she said. “I think that would be interesting because uncoated weathering steel doesn’t need to be used on just bridges and while it’s not the most sustainable building material out there it’s getting there. But I haven’t really found my niche yet for research I want to continue long-term.”

Spears has been invited to present her project at Mizzou’s Fall Research Day on December 7, 2023, at Bond Life Sciences Center. She will be joined by students participating in research during the fall semester as well as others who participated in REUs at other universities. Students should plan to attend to learn more about undergraduate research opportunities available at the College of Engineering and to see opportunities to get involved with interdisciplinary research on campus.

Explore engineering at a university that supports students’ undergraduate research opportunities. Choose Mizzou Engineering!