This summer, 10 undergraduate students performed research at the forefront of advanced imaging and microscopy technologies through the “Discoveries in Bioimaging” Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). Funded by the National Science Foundation, the 10-week program allowed the students to experience life as a graduate student.
“Our REU program is a wonderful opportunity to bring in some of the top undergraduate students in the U.S. and inspire them through bioimaging to pursue graduate degrees,” said ECE ILLINOIS Professor Stephen Allen Boppart. He is an Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering, a professor of bioengineering, and co-chair of Beckman’s Integrative Imaging theme. Boppart is the principal investigator for the program. “This is the perfect opportunity to engage the next generation of scientists and engineers, particularly those from underrepresented groups,” he said.
Marina Marjanovic, the REU program coordinator and the associate director of the GSK Center for Optical Molecular Imaging, said the program, which receives more than 100 applicants each year, has three main goals.
“It’s about research and exposure to a different academic environment,” Marjanovic said. “It’s also about professional development because we offer them other types of training besides research.”
Joanne Li, a sixth-year PhD student in bioengineering, has served as the REU’s research team leader for three years and is serving as a graduate mentor for Janet Sorrells, a fifth-year senior studying biomedical engineering at the University of Rochester who is working in Boppart’s lab. Li has been impressed with Sorrells’ achievements.
“She’s doing amazing and has totally exceeded my expectations,” Li said. “Since both Andrew (Bower, a fifth-year PhD student in electrical and computer engineering who also is a grad mentor for Sorrells) and I have taken the approach of being very hands-off with her, she usually works independently—and she’s getting lots of good data. Her independence plus this level of work quality is something I don’t often see from an undergraduate student.”
As the research team leader, Li checks in with each student frequently, holding weekly meetings with them to make sure they are making progress, meeting deadlines, and also handling the stress of such an intense program.
“One of the purposes of this program is to let the students experience grad school at the U of I, so I share a lot of my experiences with the students—both good and bad—because at the end of the program, I want them to have a clear and realistic idea of what grad school is like and whether it’s the path they want to take,” Li said. Marjanovic is in the process of preparing an NSF proposal to renew the REU which is in its final year of a three-year agreement. Andrew Smith, an assistant professor of bioengineering and co-PI for the program will serve as PI and Marjanovic as co-PI if the project is accepted; Boppart will continue as a faculty mentor.
Of the 12 students who have graduated since participating in the program during the first two years, nine are in graduate school or will enter this fall. Four are enrolled at Illinois. One additional student has deferred his admission and plans to attend Illinois.
“We hope to continue our involvement because of the success of the program to date in encouraging undergraduate students who are underrepresented in STEM graduate programs to attend graduate school,” Smith said. “Continuing also benefits (the Urbana campus) directly because the program serves as a unique experience for undergraduates from other campuses to become immersed in campus prior to applying for graduate school, which enhances our recruitment rate of top students.”
For more information and to read the full version of this story, visit the Beckman Institute website.