Undergraduate Research Sampler
Project: Protein nanosensor to detect biological agents.
Project: Use satellite images and other data to determine pollution sources and estimate the accuracy of future modeling of such events.
Project: Build a Beowulf cluster in a biomedical engineering lab.
Project: Extend the design life cycle of an artificial heart.
Undergraduate Research Scholars
Undergraduate Researchers Thrive on the Challenge
Development of an artificial heart. Using satellite images and computer modeling to determine the source of pollution. Developing a nanosensor to detect harmful airborne pathogens. Building a network of computers to combine processing power.
This is the stuff of large research grants and years of PhD dissertations, right?
Undergraduates have taken on all of these projects as part of Michigan Tech’s Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (RSP).
Once students are accepted into this competitive program, they are guaranteed admission into graduate school at Michigan Tech. The program started in the 2002-03 academic year and attracts about 20 new scholars each year.
“I have always been curious about how and why things work,” said program participant Justin Gillespie. “The RSP appeared to offer a hands-on approach to delving deep in cutting edge projects.”
Gillespie was accepted into the program to work on a project developing an artificial heart. He has prepared lab samples, characterized materials, figured out the material properties needed, and entered them into a computer model that he created.
“We hope to eventually extend the design life cycle of the artificial heart,” he said.
According to program director Neil Hutzler, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, retention and participation in the program is good. Hutzler noted that each scholar has a faculty mentor with matching research interests.
Richard Honrath, also a professor in civil and environmental engineering, is one of those mentors and a strong believer in the program. He works with Jessica Strane, a junior in environmental engineering.
“She’s doing some really nice work figuring out when our Azores station got hit by pollution from forest fires in Alaska and Canada,” Honrath said, “and when it got hit by pollution from the eastern U.S.”
Honrath established the Pico Nare pollution monitoring station on the Azore Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. He chose the location because the prevailing winds from North America tend to take pollution in that direction.
“I am looking at satellite images and data modeling applications to determine the source of pollution events,” Strane said. She likes the topic, but she also likes way the RSP is structured.
“I understand very much what it feels like to be part of a long-term team where other people need the work you do to be logical and accurate. You get a real sense of the trial and error process to figure out the best method. [The RSP] has really helped my education.”
RSP participant Hans Nyberg agrees.
“This isn’t a class, where everything is spoon-fed to me,” he said. “I must go out and find all of the information necessary for me to build this cluster. It has forced me to take a lot of initiative in order to get the project going and to keep with it.”
Nyberg is building a Beowulf cluster in the lab of Dave Nelson, a professor in biomedical engineering. A Beowulf cluster is a network of computers joined together to combine processing power. Each computer receives separate information to process, then reports back to the master computer.
“This allows more complex algorithms to be computed in less time,” Nyberg said.
Mark Griep is working on a cluster of a different kind: airborne pathogens.
“The goal of the project is to develop a protein nanosensor to detect a wide array of biological agents,” Griep said. He is specifically looking at a military application—a nanosensor that would warn of biological warfare agents.
Griep concurs with his colleagues on the value of the undergraduate research program.
“Research has given me hands-on experience applying the principles of biomedical engineering, which can be hard to get in the classroom.”