Purdue Engineering resilience, perseverance provide virtual summer research opportunities for students

In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, the College of Engineering made it a priority to offer summer undergraduate research opportunities safely and effectively to interested students – by going online.
Photo of James Caruthers
Workshop for Virtual Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship participants

The College of Engineering Undergraduate Research Office (EURO) planned and started a virtual version of the 2020 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program on June 1 with 86 students.

SURF matches undergraduates with a Purdue faculty member and a graduate student mentor who introduce research tools used in cutting-edge science, engineering and technology. Research is highly interactive, especially when training new researchers. With that in mind, the College adjusted the program for safe, distanced delivery during the pandemic. Many similar programs around the country were forced to cancel, and any physical lab-based experimentation for the students was deferred until labs safely reopen in mid-summer.

EURO director John Howarter said that the College’s “can-do attitude” and the ability to accommodate the SURF program through existing remote teaching capabilities enabled the EURO team to move ahead in planning a virtual version of SURF.

“The remote-research summer program is not anything I would have predicted, but it gave our team a chance to make some adjustments and innovations to how we can connect undergraduates with the great research that is still ongoing at Purdue,” Howarter said.

Before the pandemic, EURO had received a record-high 709 applications and had offered a total of 170 fellowships. Anticipating the problem, EURO staff administered a survey in mid-March to SURF faculty to understand the viability of remote research.

“Based on the survey, we understood that least half of the SURF projects could be adjusted to meet a virtual research scope,” said Darshini Render, EURO assistant director. “The other half of the project principal investigators (PIs) shared that due to the challenges and the unique nature of research projects and funding agency guidelines, their research projects could not be conducted remotely.”

“Remote SURF is allowing me to continue my research on ‘Membrane Material Alternatives for Carbon Dioxide Removal in Space’ where I can apply the concepts I have learned in the classroom to a real-life application, as well as connecting me with other undergraduate and graduate students,” said Gabriela Cesar, a rising junior in chemical engineering at Purdue.

Brent Jesiek, associate professor in the School of Engineering Education and the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is working with Paige Kadavy, a postbaccalaureate student from the Colorado School of Mines. Their research project is titled “Novel Ethnographic Investigations of Engineering Workplaces to Advance Theory and Research Methods for Preparing the Future Workforce”.

“The virtual SURF program allowed us to hire and work with a promising research assistant despite the limitations and challenges introduced by the COVID-19 situation,” said Jesiek. “The funding, structure, and professional development afforded by SURF were added benefits for everyone involved. Bringing Paige on board helps us keep an NSF-funded research project moving forward despite some significant setbacks to our original plan to conduct on-site field studies in industry/professional settings.”

SURF faculty introduced the program during the first week of the virtual course. Topics throughout the summer include navigating research careers, writing, learning about funding and fellowships, and preparing for a virtual symposium in August. Faculty members give practical help to students in preparing for the symposium by coaching them how to create and deliver effective posters and give oral presentations. The program also helps students prepare to apply for graduate school.

“I think [virtual SURF] is an amazing opportunity for them - I wish I had such a chance when I was a student,” said Shirley Dyke, professor of mechanical engineering and of civil engineering, and director of the Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats Institute and the Intelligent Infrastructure Systems Lab. “We are conducting research on how to design space habitats (lunar, Mars) that are resilience to disruptions and leverage autonomy and robotics. We adjusted the project some for the virtual mode. The only drawback is that we cannot get into the lab to begin building and testing the things we are modeling.”

“[Our] project aims to give opportunities to students that will help to build the space workforce of the future, and perhaps some will also be interested in continuing on the project for graduate degrees,” Dyke said. “The students and postdocs have an opportunity to work with students and gain experience that prepares them for faculty positions.”

“SURF - in any setting - exposes you to the excitement and challenges of research,” said Abigayle Moser, a rising junior at Iowa State University who is working with Purdue Mechanical Engineering’s Luciano Castillo on a research project titled “Wind Energy Production Over Complex Terrains”.

“Working with incredible people at the forefront of science and innovation is a meaningful way to contribute to a better future,” Moser said. “My heart is with renewable energy and pushing towards a sustainable future.”

Cesar also mentioned the practical value of the program. “This program has shown me a perspective of the day-to-day activities of a researcher and has provided me with valuable inputs to help me decide whether or not to pursue a master’s degree,” she said. “I am glad to be able to attend the Professional Development Seminars, where the SURF graduate mentors and panelists talk about research tips, life in graduate school and working in industry.”

Jesiek summed up the 2020 SURF Remote Program: “We have creatively pivoted our work in light of current realities, and the SURF program has been flexible in helping us making this all work.”

This summer’s SURF Remote Program runs from June 1 through August 5, 2020. The program is open to Purdue and other undergraduate students from U.S. universities.

Additional information on the SURF Remote Program

Writer: DeEtte Starr

Sources: John Howarter howarter@purdue.edu, Darshini Render render@purdue.edu