Undergrad Research Gives Students A Leg Up In Careers, Graduate School
GAINESVILLE — As a member of a University of Florida design team at work on a project for a major phosphate mining company, Kungun Mathur spends at least 10 hours each week on calculations, technical drawings and meetings with company officials.
But Mathur is not a graduate student or professor. She’s a 19-year-old junior in mechanical engineering doing the project as part of an undergraduate research program at UF’s Engineering Research Center for Particle Science and Technology.
“The project is teaching me how to deal with industry as well as how to work as a team,” Mathur says. “Also, it gives me the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned.”
The ERC Research Award Program, which involves about 50 undergraduates working on more than 20 projects this summer, is one of several undergraduate research programs on the UF campus and part of a growing national trend. Although no one tracks how many universities have undergraduate research programs, nearly 1,600 papers were presented at a national conference on undergraduate research in Maryland earlier this year, up from 216 at the first such conference in 1987, according to news articles.
Anne Donnelly, associate director for education and outreach and coordinator of the ERC’s undergraduate research program, said the program introduces students to research while providing industry and faculty members with assistance on projects.
“What the ERC was really looking for was integrating research and education,” she said. “What better way to do that then to put the students in a lab?”
Students can participate in the program as early as the second semester of their freshman year and may be able to continue until graduation. With time, they become better researchers capable of taking on bigger and bigger projects, Donnelly said. “The fact that they can participate on a longer-term project makes the students more proficient researchers and of greater help to the faculty,” she said.
While the students don’t earn credit, the program provides fellowships ranging from $850 to $1,000 per semester, Donnelly said. Some projects are coordinated by faculty members, others by industry. Past corporate participants include Alcoa and DuPont.
Mathur, the mechanical engineering junior, is a part of a five-member team at work on designing a machine for CF Industries, an international mining company, that will help speed up the phosphate mining process.
The machine is intended to form samples of phosphate rock into pellets that can be tested easily for impurities with a new testing instrument. Designed by UF researchers, the instrument has dramatically shortened the time needed to test phosphate for aluminum, magnesium and other impurities.
“The technique the industry currently uses takes two hours, and we’ve cut it down to five minutes,” said Gretchen Potts, a UF doctoral student in chemistry who is overseeing the undergraduates’ work. “But the thing is, it takes us 30 minutes to make pellets to be ready for the five-minute determination. So what these students are doing is building an automated machine to make the pellets.”
Team members say the experience will be a valuable addition to their resumes.
“When you’re looking for jobs, you want to be able to say you have work experience,” said Chris Revilla, a junior in mechanical engineering.
The project also provides experience in working in groups, other team members said.
“It gives you insight about working in groups, which will pretty much be the case when you work for the company,” said Sumeet Gupta, a junior in electrical engineering.
Some research universities are criticized for giving undergraduates short shrift. But the ERC’s program opens the door to faculty members, other students said.
“I was able to use the ERC’s facilities for anything I want, and I could always get free advice from professors,” said Patrick Nguyen, a recent graduate in chemical engineering.
The ERC Research Award Program receives about $150,000 annually, a third of it from a National Science Foundation grant and two-thirds in matching funds from UF. Other undergraduate research programs at UF include the University Scholars program, which is introducing some 250 students to working in research laboratories this summer.
- Christopher Davis
- Anne Donnelly