March 28, 2006

Research program attracts top undergraduates

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Just like any workplace, communication problems can get in the way in the research laboratory when people from different fields work together on a project. A newly funded undergraduate research program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale targets that problem while bringing more top students to SIUC to pursue graduate studies in science.

The National Science Foundation recently announced a three-year, $228,000 grant to set up a Research Experience for Undergraduates site at SIUC. The University also will chip in $50,000 to the effort, bringing the total for the project to about $278,000.

SIUC will bring 10 undergraduate chemistry, physics and engineering students from traditionally underrepresented groups to SIUC for a 10-week program working on materials research in a laboratory setting. The program presents a positive image for science and engineering as a career choice by providing a nurturing environment in which students learn basic research tools and improve oral and written communication skills.

Students will work with scientists from a variety of disciplines, which is more like the arrangement researchers encounter in the field, where they often are part of a team. Daniel J. Dyer, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry in SIUC’s College of Science, said this unique approach helped secure the funding.

“We all have different languages,” said Dyer, explaining, for example, that physicists and chemists describe some properties using exactly opposite terms. “Chemistry people have a fundamentally different thought process than, say, engineers or physicists. Not superior, just different. Part of this experience is to get the students exposed to different disciplines so they will understand how each field thinks and communicates.”

Max Yen, director of the Materials Technology Center at SIUC, said the students will work on nanotechnologies in the center’s labs and elsewhere around campus. He said nanotechnology, which involves the study of materials at the molecular level and the creation of super-small devices and structures, provides an ideal arena for students to work across disciplines.

“With nanotechnology, there are so many implications that you have to be knowledgeable in many fields. Everyone involved has their own niche, but to make the student successful they will need good knowledge of fundamental science – the total package,” Yen said. “We need people who are willing and wanting to put it all together.”

For the past decade, the University has played host to a handful of students for a summer research program, Dyer said. The grant allows for vast improvement, however, because of the increased funding and its reliability. Those aspects mean the University can better recruit top undergraduate students to the program, which ultimately might bring them to SIUC to pursue their degrees.

The first 10 students in the program, including one from SIUC, will begin their studies in June. The group, made up of sophomores and juniors from mainly Midwest universities and colleges, includes one engineering student, three from physics and six from chemistry.

By bringing many of the students to SIUC from other institutions, the University hopes to recruit them for graduate studies by exposing them to its high-tech research facilities and top scientists.

Student will work with a team of SIUC researchers from those three disciplines. The researchers will focus their efforts on developing new materials, Dyer said, studying various properties and then isolating and controlling them.

“Any time you’re talking about materials research, in the long term it’s about creating some sort of device,” Dyer said. Among those on the drawing board for the program are drug delivery and tissue engineering systems and sensors.

Landing the funding was no easy task, Dyer said. It took three tries before the NSF was satisfied with the proposed program’s structure and practically every science research department in the country vies for the money each year.

“It’s an extremely competitive program,” Dyer said. “It’s very hard to get this.”

Now that it has approved the grant, the NSF is likely to renew it after three years, Dyer said.

Identifying, pursuing and obtaining new sources of external grant and contract funding, and developing interdisciplinary partnerships are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.