Illinois ECE faculty members discuss REU opportunities from the Holonyak Lab
Undergraduate research experience sets Grainger College of Engineering graduates apart from their peers. For undergrads involved in the Nick Holonyak Jr., Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, that experience can include active involvement in the ground-breaking research for which the lab is known. Illinois ECE Professor Xiuling Li, Donald Biggar Willett Professor in Engineering, Professor Lynford L Goddard, Assistant Professor Can Bayram, and Assistant Professor Wenjuan Zhu gave their perspectives on these opportunities.
“You have to trust them, take faith in them, and give them the opportunity to blossom, even for freshmen” said Li, Holonyak Lab interim director. “Over the years, we’ve found really hardworking, dedicated undergrads who become coauthors and co-inventors on our research projects and then go on to make real impact on society.”
Li’s lab has a goal of getting undergraduates involved, especially those who wish to go onto grad school. She generally has 2-6 undergrads working in the cleanrooms and being mentored by graduate students or a postdoc. Li is one of four Holonyak Lab faculty members who recently received Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) supplemental funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Researchers receive REU funding as an additional subsidy added to an existing NSF grant. The money is designated to fund an additional student not already covered by the grant. A former REU student himself and an adviser to more than 50 undergraduates during his 13 years at Illinois, Lynford Goddard knows the impact this funding can have on student’s careers.
“When I was a junior, this research experience led me to see which areas of physics I was most excited about, and gave me an opportunity to explore things that aren’t in textbooks,” said Goddard, director of the Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access. “It’s a great way to broaden participation for students in underrepresented groups and allow them to have this opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Can Bayram’s own experiences with undergraduate research also led him to go the extra mile to allow undergrads to get involved in his lab. Over the last six years, undergraduates have contributed to 38% of all the publications coming out of the ICORLAB, with almost one-in-five of those publications having an undergrad lead author. Even more impressive is that half of the patents his group has achieved during that same time period included contributions from an undergrad.
Bayram thinks this is level of involvement is unique to Illinois and Holonyak Lab.
“I invest in them because I want them to benefit from the great opportunities Illinois has to offer,” said Bayram. “No other institution can train them better, which is one of the reasons I open my group to an unusually-high number of undergraduate researchers.”
Allowing undergraduates to participate gives them an advantage on the job market, when applying to graduate schools, and can even help them choose their career path. Echoing Goddard, Wenjuan Zhu believes conducting research teaches valuable lessons that can’t be taught in a traditional classroom.
“Doing research during their undergraduate years allows students to gain experience and knowledge, which is important, especially if they want to pursue a master’s degree or a PhD,” said Zhu. “When they do a research project in a lab they learn to utilize what they’ve learned in class to solve a real-life problem.”
The extent to which undergraduate students can get involved and truly contribute to the research being conducted at Holonyak Lab can be surprising to people from other institutions. Some universities only allow graduate students to use high-tech equipment and chemicals, restricting students from getting hands-on experience during their bachelor’s degree. While Holonyak Lab is advanced in this aspect, Goddard believes there is room to grow and give these opportunities to even more students.
“I encourage faculty that have eligible grants to apply for the supplement, it’s a great way to get additional people involved in your research,” said Goddard. “In my experience undergraduates are very productive, dedicated, and eager to learn. It’s an amazing experience.”
Check out the original article on the HMNTL site.