Early lab experience for undergraduates

Engineering students gain meaningful research experience at Tufts thanks to NSF REU supplemental funding.
Exterior of Joyce Cummings Center

By Kiely Quinn

An engineering student’s early experiences working in a lab can be formative. It’s where they begin to gain an understanding of the research process and apply what they’ve learned from textbooks and lectures. At Tufts, many students become involved in research from the earliest stages of their education. Supplemental Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) has opened the door even wider for undergraduates to gain hands-on lab experience working on NSF-funded projects.

Principal investigators on an existing NSF grant can apply for supplemental REU funding to hire undergraduate students to participate in the project. Unlike the more commonly-known REU Site funding, this supplemental funding does not require a distinct project proposal and can be incorporated into a proposal for any new or renewal NSF grant.

Professors at Tufts School of Engineering have taken advantage of REU funding over the years, giving undergraduate students a unique opportunity to make meaningful contributions to research at an early stage in their education. 

Tufts students learn through hands-on research

In Tufts’ REAP Labs, Phillip Hempstead, E23, and Victor Vazquez, E25, are working with Professor and Department Chair Tom Vandervelde, of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, to investigate how different materials affect the absorption and reflection of light. Their work contributes to a larger overall project that aims to improve the efficiency of thermophotovoltaic systems— a method of generating energy from heat with photons. Generating electricity is not unlike setting off a chain of dominos. If one part of the chain becomes broken or damaged, the whole process is compromised. The group hopes to find solutions to some of the weak points of thermophotovoltaic systems, which would allow them to be used in a wider variety of circumstances from implanted medical devices to car engines.

Participating in this research has given Hempstead and Vazquez practical experience working with a range of materials, including some that were grown in the lab, as well as potential opportunities to present their work at upcoming conferences. Vandervelde continues to fund undergraduate student experience in his lab with REU supplemental funding supporting Charlie Dickerson, E24, to work in REAP Labs this fall.

In the lab of Stern Family Professor of Engineering David Kaplan in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Fatimah Mumuney, E24, and Mina Shokoufandeh, E23, are working with Research Assistant Professor Ying Chen to develop a protective coating that would shield cells from environmental or processing damage that can result in changes to the cell’s function. The group hopes to prevent this damage with a modified silk nanocoating that temporarily protects cells without inhibiting their normal functioning. The project, a joint endeavor between the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Physics in Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences, has implications for improvements in 3D printing, cell injection, surface engineering of cells, and more.

In addition to making invaluable contributions to the team’s research, Mumuney, E24, has learned about herself in the process. “This project, but also working in the lab in general, has shown me that I’m really a kinesthetic learner,” she said. Mumuney, who ultimately hopes to go to medical school, appreciated meeting PhD students in the lab and learning about possible tracks to continue her education.

Likewise, Haneen Abderrazzaq, A23, who works with Professor Soha Hassoun of the Department of Computer Science, feels encouraged to pursue a graduate degree in computer science after spending the summer in the lab. Along with Jyoti Bhardwaj, E25, and Leonid Kaluzhny, E25, the group develops tools to study enzyme promiscuity – a term which refers to an enzyme’s ability to produce side reactions in addition to their main reaction. “I think this research experience is definitely one of the main highlights of my Tufts experience, and through it I have been able to expand on what I’ve learned in my classes, find a connection between my academic interests, and drive my own research project,” says Abderrazzaq.

Tufts faculty support undergraduate research across institutions

While REU supplemental funding can be applied to any NSF-funded project, it can also be utilized for REU Site-specific projects, which welcome students from multiple universities to one site. Two Tufts students, Cydnee Lane, A23, and Charlotte Versavel, A25, benefitted from REU supplemental funding this summer through the Directed, Intensive, and Mentored Opportunities iN Data Science (DIAMONDS) program.

Founded as part of the T-TRIPODS Institute by Ellise LaMotte, Associate Dean of Student Diversity, Inclusion and Success for the Schools of Engineering and Arts and Sciences, and Professor Lenore Cowen of the Department of Computer Science, DIAMONDS provides students from groups under-represented in STEM fields with mentorship and research opportunities to encourage their growth and success in data science. Lane and Versavel joined a group of students representing eight different universities who came to Tufts to participate in the DIAMONDS program this summer.

Lane had support from two professors of computer science as her mentors — Tufts Professor Lenore Cowen and Tufts alum Orit Shaer, EG04, EG08, now a professor at Wellesley College. Lane’s project, titled “Image segmentation and initial designs for Capture the Coral,” endeavored to create a coral-identification app that scans and identifies users’ pictures of coral. Her project involved grappling with the unique challenges of image segmentation in an underwater environment and focused on the simplicity and effectiveness of the app’s user interface.

With the help of her faculty mentor Cowen, Versavel developed an algorithm called ReCIPE, a program that comes up with predictive labels for lesser-known proteins based on their connections to more well-known proteins. Versavel compared the connections between proteins to the connections within a group of friends. For example, if two well-known people who work in the same place are friends, then it’s possible that a third, lesser-known person they are both friends with may also work in the same place. ReCIPE uses a similar logic to learn more about the function of under-studied proteins. Both Lane and Versavel culminated their summer experience with presentations about their respective projects.

Practical learning brings positive outcomes

Across departments and disciplines, students who benefited from REU supplemental funding contributed to a variety of research projects. Over the course of the summer, they made critical contributions to their respective labs and became valued members of their research teams. Vandervelde reflected on the far-reaching impact of his students’ work: “Phillip and Victor not only helped determine the direction of the materials discovery process but developed a new photoluminescence characterization set-up that will be used in the research group for years to come."

For these undergraduate students, seeing the impact of their work on a larger research project has been a rewarding experience that is already furthering their education and advancing their skills in preparation for their future careers. As Mumuney reflects, “I found that it’s one thing to read scientific articles, but actually being in the lab and partaking in research is a whole different experience.”

The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Science Foundation. Research reported in this article was supported by the National Science Foundation, under the following award numbers: 

  • 1806311
  • 2104294
  • 1909536
  • 2149871