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Amid pandemic turbulence, undergrads find fruitful opportunities for research

6/9/2021 5:00:56 PM Taylor Tucker

Illinois is recognized worldwide for its rich, diverse, and competitive research community. The Grainger College of Engineering boasts of over 2,000 interdisciplinary research projects happening every semester in more than 60 research bodies across campus.

Undergraduate student doing research at UIUCWhile these projects are often led by graduate students and post-docs, the college works to ensure that undergraduates have equal opportunity to make an impact through research. Programs such as Illinois Scholars Undergraduate Research (ISUR), Mentoring Undergraduates in Science and Engineering (MUSE), and Promoting Undergraduate Research in Engineering (PURE) support students’ entry into the world of research by connecting them with mentors, peers, and faculty whose research fits each applicant’s interests. The College also has numerous opportunities for funding, through awards and scholarships, grant competitions, or other sources.

Even through the uncertainty and turbulence brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, undergrads in MechSE were able to find innovative ways to continue, or even get started in, research projects. ME graduating senior Tierney Dufficy began working in the Bio-inspired Adaptive Morphology (BAM) Lab under Assistant Professor Aimy Wissa during the spring 2020 semester.

“I began with designing an actuation method to simulate the tail motion of a fish,” said Dufficy, who commenced working only a few weeks before the university went into lockdown. “By May, I had the design I wanted to pursue, but because of Covid, I didn’t have access to our prototyping facilities.”

Dufficy compromised by working out potential design flaws through CAD until Fall 2020, when she could reenter the lab space to iterate her design physically. However, it wasn’t until midway through the spring 2021 semester that she began to encounter BAM lab mates. “I was really happy when I started overlapping with people because I finally got to see them again in person,” Dufficy said.

ME junior Christopher Metellus also joined a research project during the spring 2020 semester, working on measuring the material properties of a polydimethulsiloxane (PDMS) substrate in Assistant Professor Arend van der Zande’s nanoengineering lab. When his work became remote, Metellus constructed a measuring device using LEGOS from his home.

“Using [the device], I was able to gather measurements and apply them to the research I was doing,” Metellus said. “It made it so that I could still contribute to the project.”

Although much of his work is still remote, Metellus has enjoyed communing with lab mates through weekly virtual meetings, as well as attending online research presentations given by students from neighboring labs.

“[Working remotely] did limit things to an extent, especially since I couldn’t interact with people from adjacent lab groups in the same space,” Metellus said. “I had to rely on being in the different groups while students were presenting to at least interact with them on the virtual plane, since the physical plane wasn’t an option anymore.”

Junior Anushka Sandeep, studying mechanical engineering with a minor in computer science, began working on aerodynamic research relevant for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the BAM Lab during the spring 2021 semester. She produced and ran simulated tests for a bird wing-inspired airfoil hinge design and was able to prototype her design near the end of the semester.

“As a freshman, I was always looking for research opportunities,” Sandeep said. “I knew that research was one of the main things I wanted to do [at Illinois].”

Sandeep found her opportunity while taking ME 370 (Mechanical Design I), which Wissa was teaching at the time. “Dr. Wissa made it very clear that she was actively hiring undergrads for her research,” Sandeep recalled. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is something I may have to look into, because UAVs are one of my passions.”

Meanwhile, other students were already involved with research well before the pandemic began. ME graduating senior Anna Alvarez had been active on various projects since her freshman year.

“I think the main reason I came to Illinois was for the research,” said Alvarez, who most recently worked in the BAM Lab, investigating the aerodynamics experienced by bird wings during landing. “In high school, I had always wanted to try it.”

Through the Researchers Initiative (RI) program, Alvarez started out in the anthropology department, modeling the bone structure of sheep. “I could see that as a mechanical engineer, I don’t necessarily have to do what people conventionally think is mechanical engineering,” she said of the experience. “If I could work in an anthropology lab, I could probably work in whatever lab I wanted.”

When the pandemic first began, Alvarez was in the literature review phase of her research and could continue doing so from home. However, when it came time to test her 3D-printed bird wings in the wind tunnel, she faced a series of delays, finally completing her testing this past semester. Despite these setbacks, she was still able to produce a conference paper.

Materials Science and Engineering graduating senior Matthew Wu was able to connect with MechSE Associate Professor Nenad Miljkovic’s Energy Transport Research Lab through the PURE program. He began working during the spring 2019 semester, focusing on superhydrophobic surfaces.

“Initially, I started working on more of the fabrication side, and then more recently I’ve been focused on the characterization of surfaces for heat transfer applications,” said Wu, whose research was paused with the outbreak of the pandemic. After taking a forced break from the project during the spring 2020 semester, Wu was able to resume work in the lab in Fall 2020 and finished his contribution to the project this past semester.

ME graduating senior Joe Koszut, who has been working in the Energy Transport Research Lab since Fall 2019, had a different experience when the pandemic hit. “We were studying the effects of superhydrophobic surfaces on delaying the frost growth on heat exchangers, using a wind tunnel to run experiments,” said Koszut of his collaboration with one of Miljkovic’s graduate students. “I was actually able to take this in-progress work to the Center for Integrated Thermal Management of Aerospace Vehicles (CITMAV) conference at UCLA in February 2020.”

Koszut had originally planned to present his finalized results at another conference that summer, but losing access to the lab forced the project to pause.

“On the bright side, I was able to learn about other areas of research, and get into simulation work,” he said of transitioning to a different project in order to keep contributing research. The break from running experiments also allowed him to devote time to writing a research paper. “Toward the end of the summer, we were able to regain lab access, and with a lot of work we actually finished [the original project] before the deadline and still presented our completed project at a virtual conference.”

Having successfully navigated the ups and downs of their individual research paths, three of the graduating seniors plan to continue pursuing research in graduate school—for Koszut, through a Master of Science in systems engineering at the University of California, Berkeley; for Alvarez, through a PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and for Wu, through a PhD at the University of Michigan. Metellus and Sandeep say they plan to pursue research in graduate school as well.

Dufficy has chosen a different path, opting for an Air Force Civilian Services engineering position at the McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas. Although she hopes to re-enter the research sector later in her career, Dufficy looks forward to doing something different.

“With this position, you can go to any Air Force base in the world—in a couple years, I could be in Alaska or Guam,” she said. “I wanted an adventure.”

Her sentiment is shared by her peers. “It’s like a thrill when it comes to dealing with something that you don’t know about,” said Sandeep of encountering unfamiliar topics in research. “It’s a little adventure of sorts in the lab.”

For students interested in becoming involved with research, these experienced researchers have a plethora of sound advice regarding navigating entry during the ongoing pandemic.

“Even if you’re only able to do a virtual option, it’s still good to do it because it shows that you’re able to perform well even with restrictions,” Metellus said of contributing to a research project remotely. “I think you can leverage the experience to show that you’re a persistent learner.”

“Don’t use Covid as an excuse; just go for it,” Dufficy said. “Professors are still looking for people, and research is a really rewarding thing.”

“Just keep trying, and keep your options open,” Wu said of being persistent in looking for opportunities. “I filled out an application through PURE during my freshman year and didn’t get any responses. Then I tried again sophomore year after I had gained some more experience and I actually heard back from all three of the advisors I applied to.”

“Apply for as many opportunities as possible, and don’t hesitate to talk with professors if you can. If you don’t get research as a freshman or sophomore, join RSOs and get experience there,” said Sandeep, who also suggested that students seek research opportunities with professors whose classes they enjoyed. “Dr. Wissa was very willing to recruit me because she already knew me from ME 370.”

Alvarez shared her peers’ sentiment of reaching out no matter the circumstances. “[Even with the pandemic], you should still continue to contact professors that you think have interesting research,” Alvarez said of taking the initiative to reach out directly about potential opportunities. “You don’t know what the situation is in their lab—they could be very eager to have undergrads come to help with a particular project.”

Koszut added encouragement. “You never know unless you ask,” he said. “It’s not about coming in with knowledge, it’s about coming in with a passion to learn. If you have that, I think the grad students will see that desire in you and give you more responsibility. Don’t let your doubts prevent you from trying something out.”