A Step Ahead: Students Get A Taste of Grad School Through LSU CHE REU Program

REU students posing on stairsBefore college students apply to graduate school, a list of questions undoubtedly runs through their minds. What is this school like? What will I learn? Will it be worth my time? To help them find answers, LSU’s Cain Department of Chemical Engineering has a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program designed to give students a sneak peek into what graduate school is really like.

For 10 weeks this summer, LSU Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Michael Benton and Assistant Professor Adam Melvin hosted 12 engineering students from 12 universities across the country as part of the CHE REU program. Each student is paired with a mentor who oversees his or her research project and provides input.

The CHE REU program was funded in 2016 through the National Science Foundation and is now in its third year at LSU.

“I actually participated in an REU program when I was an undergrad, so I’ve wanted to do something like this since I arrived at LSU,” Melvin said. “REUs are fantastic programs created by the National Science Foundation. From the NSF standpoint, a win is increased enrollment in grad school. What I call a double win is when the students come to LSU.”

Selection for participation in the program is quite competitive, with just under 15 percent of students who apply admitted. After acceptance into the CHE REU, students are given a list of mentors, along with a brief description of each mentor’s project. They have a two-week window to call the mentors and discuss which projects pique their interest.

“Professors provide a project title, so the students can contact the professor saying they’re interested, then set up a phone call or Skype meeting,” Melvin said. “Many of them have already started reading about their selected project before they even get here.”

Through the admissions process, students provide their top three choices for mentors, with Benton and Melvin doing their best to pair them up. The mentor/student pairing is finalized by early April.

“One thing that’s been great is, because we have a lot of junior faculty, they have been more than eager to serve as mentors,” Melvin said. “Some like to do checkups. Some like to be right next to the students. Some just want weekly updates. Different mentors have different mentoring policies for undergraduates.”

“All of the professors told us they want us to have a say in it and be really excited about it, so we’ll want to do this and want to be here,” said Padma Pellegrin, a 2018 CHE REU participant and a junior at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

A New Orleans native, Pellegrin chose LSU’s CHE REU program because the research topics relate to her studies in the biomedical field.

“I looked at all of the project titles and what all of the professors are doing here, and I just found it really interesting,” she said. “I currently do undergraduate research at my college with a biomedical focus, so I do a lot of lab work experiments. Coming here and being able to jump into this new project and start something as if I am a grad student is exactly the experience that I needed.”

Kanoa Cook, a junior from the University of California, Berkley, applied to REU programs at two universities but decided on LSU after seeing the project he would be working on with Melvin.

“His project entails making a hydrogel that encapsulates cells to give them a 3D environment to grow in,” Cook said. “I’d like to go into the pharmaceutical industry, so this project has helped me gain insight into some of the research in that field.”

The first two weeks of the REU program entail safety training, learning to use the lab equipment, reading papers, and learning new methods and theories.

“By week four or five, they’ve really hit their stride,” Melvin said.

Students are asked to submit a weekly update to Benton, Melvin, and their mentor. Halfway through the program, Benton and Melvin have a one-on-one meeting with each CHE REU student to assess their experiences to date.

“We ask what’s going on with their projects and if there’s anything we can change,” Melvin said. “It’s all strong feedback.” 

On top of gaining hands-on research experience in their field of interest, the LSU CHE REU students are trained in entrepreneurship. The Louisiana Business and Technology Center (LBTC) and Director Charles D’Agostino provide support to the program by offering two workshops during the 10-week period that teach the students how to give five-minute pitches, identify potential customers and their REU students working in labneeds, and develop basic business plans. The program has also partnered with the Technology Transfer Office, where Director Andy Maas talks to the students about intellectual property and protecting their ideas.

“LBTC is a fantastic organization,” Benton said. “Their mentoring has been instrumental in the success of our students. We want our REU students to see all of the great things they can do with a PhD, including strengthening the local economy by starting their own business—even while still a student.”

Melvin believes many students want to see the big picture on how their work will affect the outside world. Through the entrepreneurship component, LSU CHE REU students learn more about taking their ideas to market and impacting society.

“It’s good to keep [commercialization] in the back of your mind, because if you weren’t doing research that was affecting a target audience, then why spend time doing it?” Cook said. “There doesn’t need to be an associated dollar sign next to it, but it’s good to think about how it could advance current technology.”

At the end of the two-month-long program, the students present their work at a poster presentation where they are judged by a panel of research/entrepreneurship experts.

“They present their research with an entrepreneurship component to show how their work could go to the next level, whether it be starting a small business or pilot plant that leads to bigger studies, that could lead into new companies, which could lead into an industrial partnership,” Melvin said.

The REU students also had the chance to share their knowledge with high school students at the college’s REHAMS and Halliburton XCITE camps. The REU students described the various aspects of chemical engineering and helped the REHAMS and XCITE students design their own separation units, a typical task for a chemical engineer.

“That was a lot of fun,” Cook said. “We did demos and talked about why engineering is fun.”

Beyond the lab, the students also get to experience LSU campus life by rooming together and exploring Baton Rouge.

“It’s my first time in Louisiana,” Cook said. “The people are super kind-hearted and the food is amazing.”

Whether or not the CHE REU students ultimately choose to come to LSU for graduate school, they will at least leave the Cain Department of Chemical Engineering with more knowledge and a deeper understanding of what graduate school entails.

And just maybe, a little Southern hospitality and good cooking will also help convince them to return.

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Contact: Libby Haydel

Communications Specialist