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New research program aims for undergraduate, graduate collaboration

By Andrew Mu     12/1/17 11:46am

A new research opportunity at Rice aims to involve undergraduate students in long-term graduate student-led research projects.

The Smalley-Curl Institute’s Student Training for Advising Research Program awarded eight graduate students grants and the chance to recruit and mentor an undergraduate student on a project lasting the full academic year and summer, according to Alberto Pimpinelli, executive director of the Smalley-Curl Institute.

“Such a program provides graduate students with a great opportunity to train in both proposal writing and research mentorship, while at the same time giving undergraduates the opportunity to perform cutting-edge research,” Pimpinelli said.

The SCI-STAR program will provide a summer stipend for each participating undergraduate, as well as funds for project-related expenses. Projects will be presented during the SCI Summer Research Colloquium in 2018, according to the SCI-STAR website.

A panel of four faculty members, two from natural sciences and two from engineering, read and ranked project proposals by graduate students.

“The panel was looking for proposals whose scientific motivations were clearly described avoiding technical jargon, whose goals were convincingly shown to be accessible to and profitable for undergrads,” Pimpinelli said.

According to Alberto Pimpinelli, the program was created after graduate student association representatives suggested implementing a program similar to one organized by the German Academic Exchange Service, Germany’s federally funded agency for higher education.

“One of the students described a program that Germany organizes: Graduate students write research proposals that they then submit to a specific granting agency; a selection is made, and the winning proposals are sent to a pool of undergraduate students in the U.K. and the U.S.,” Pimpinelli said.

Dayne Swearer, a fourth-year chemistry graduate student, will mentor a project focused on developing materials that can be used to produce ammonia using sunlight as a sustainable energy source.

“Independent of what you foresee yourself doing in the future, learning [fundamental skills in research, critical thinking, and communication] and getting involved in a high-risk, high-reward research project will pay off in one way or another,” Swearer said.

According to Swearer, he is seeking undergraduates who are motivated and share his goal of making a difference in the world by developing new insights and technologies.

“I am looking for students willing to step out of their comfort zone and learn new things,” Swearer said. “Independent of academic background or major, anyone who is motivated to work on this [project] should contact me.”

Another mentor, fifth-year applied physics graduate student Sara Nizzero, is working to understand the body’s defense mechanisms against cancer drug therapies which prevent transport of the drugs to the tumor site.

“The goal of our project is to investigate the mechanisms of nanoparticle uptake by the liver, with the greater aim of developing clinical strategies to inhibit liver uptake and thus increase tumor accumulation of drug,” Nizzero said.

Other graduate student mentors include second-year bioengineering graduate student Sarah Hewes, who is working on developing a device to quickly create artificial small diameter grafts to treat vascular disease, and materials science and nanoengineering graduate student Sandhya Susarla, who is investigating the properties of alloys which can later be used to build LEDs.

According to Pimpinelli, undergraduate students in the SCI-STAR program are expected to be fully involved in a research project from beginning to end, including publication.

“The program interests me because learning in the classroom only goes so far; research is a good way to put what you are learning into practice,” Medha Gupta, a Sid Richardson College freshman, said.

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