Campus News Science & Technology

NSF program to give undergrads a taste of life as a scientist

Athens, Ga. – Ten undergraduate students from across the U.S. will come to the University of Georgia this summer for an intensive, nine-week program where they will conduct hands-on scientific research in the fields of nanotechnology and biomedicine.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program will pair each visiting student with two faculty mentors as they leave behind the familiar confines of the classroom and begin serious work in a modern, fully functioning laboratory.

“This program will allow students from all over the United States to do cutting-edge research in engineering and biomedical science alongside seasoned professionals,” said Leidong Mao, associate professor in UGA’s College of Engineering and principal investigator for the grant. “This is now the fifth REU program at UGA, but this one is somewhat unique in that it has a very strong interdisciplinary component, which will teach students the importance of collaborative work.”

Projects cover a wide range of interests and needs. One student, for example, will work to construct a 3-D printed model of a human body based on magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography scans. Such a model could allow surgeons to plan complicated operations in detail before ever seeing the patient.

Another challenge for this year’s students involves creating a micro-device to measure the body’s biological clock at the cellular level. Most species have an internal clock that allows them to adapt to the daily light and dark cycles on the planet, and this student must create a device that allows the measurement of this clock-like function on an individual cell.

Participants were chosen from a pool consisting mostly of college sophomores and juniors who have demonstrated an interest in science, but might not be sure what to do with their education.

“We can have a serious impact on students at this age, because they are just beginning to figure out what they might like to do for a living, and we can help them find more direction,” said Jonathan Arnold, professor of genetics in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and co-principal investigator.

Students will live in UGA dormitories and work closely with graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty as they learn a variety of experimental procedures commonly used in modern research. They will also attend seminars, take road trips to other facilities-like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-and enjoy social gatherings with students in other REU programs.

Faculty and staff from across UGA spent several years perfecting this program and acquire additional funding from UGA College of Engineering. By working on real-life problems, students will develop a passion for science that will drive them towards careers in academia or industry, Mao said.

“Students may only work on a small component of an overall project, but each project addresses a serious problem related to the health and well-being of human beings,” Arnold said. “Hopefully they will see the relevance of the work, and that will inspire them to continue.”

Organizers are hopeful that some students will consider UGA as a potential graduate school, but they are ultimately more concerned with boosting science, technology, engineering and mathematics education throughout the country.

“We want to make this a sustainable program where UGA is at the center of STEM education,” said Mao. “We will evaluate the program carefully and continue to improve our approach to better serve future students.”