Graduate mentoring helps materials science students reach research dreams

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The future looks bright for Katy Gerace, who will graduate in May with an undergraduate degree in materials science and engineering from Penn State in just three years.

Already the Schreyer Honors College student is entertaining job offers at several elite companies.

But the path to this point, she admits, didn’t seem so certain. As she navigated through her academic and research path, she relied on graduate mentors to take her from a bright, promising high school graduate who never set foot in a lab, to an experienced researcher, working on two-dimensional materials with Professor Joan Redwing.

In the lab, she met graduate student Zakaria Al-Balushi, now a post-doc at Caltech. Gerace said Al-Balushi took an immediate interest in advancing her laboratory skills and her knowledge of materials science.

“We hit it off immediately,” Gerace said. “We were great friends. He was really fun to work with, but he was also a great mentor. He was definitely my go-to person to guide me through research. He was very instrumental to my success.”

Al-Balushi taught Gerace lab protocols and procedures as well as the process for synthesizing materials. She’s completing her senior thesis on a novel, rather unexplored semiconductor called indium selenide, a 2-D layered material.

“We didn’t just work together,” Gerace said. “We definitely established a really good relationship. It’s amazing to work with someone like that. Thankfully, I had someone like him in the lab. I know people who have pursued research without that mentoring relationship and it’s a completely different dynamic.”

Through the graduate program and the accelerated graduate program, the department is continuing the pipeline of graduate students capable of mentoring undergraduates while advancing their own studies. 

Having an impact

Jessica Kopatz, who is pursuing her doctorate in materials science and engineering, sees graduate students as the mediator between professors and undergraduates.

“I think it’s a lot easier to approach graduate students because we can sit there and be like ‘Dude, I had the same question when I was in this class. I feel you. This is how you approach it. This is how you solve it,’” Kopatz said. “And they’re like, ‘Oh I never thought of it like that.’”

Kopatz began connecting with undergraduates when she still was one — she was a teacher’s assistant her senior year and has been helping students ever since. She knows the value of good teaching and wants to be like the professors who inspired her.

She parallels materials science and teaching as two things that better society, and she wants to contribute in both areas.

“I would want someone to say, ‘you know this discovery actually helped me,’” Kopatz said. “That would be my end goal. To have an impact. Or to have a student come back and be like, ‘thank you for that time you pushed me to do this.’ I want to have an impact on them, too.”

Excited for discovery

Karan Doss knew he needed a stronger background in materials science to advance his future in mechanical engineering. So he enrolled in the accelerated masters program, which completes in one year and doesn’t require a thesis.

He wants to earn his doctorate and he chose materials science because it complements a range of other sciences. He’s most interested in academia because he’s passionate about teaching and enjoys an environment that promotes discovery.

In Professor Michael Hickner’s lab, Doss is working on 3-D printed materials that can respond to heat or light.

As a boy growing up in India, Doss saw how the internet boom caused a huge change in the way the world lives. Since then, he’s been using his science background to position himself to be a part of the next big change.

“That’s the amazing part about science and technology,” Doss said. “You have these long periods where it feels like nothing is happening and all of a sudden there’s this one discovery that disrupts life as we know it for the next five or 10 decades. I’m just waiting for that next big change. I’m excited for that. Personally, I’d like to be a part of it.”

Stronger together

Hala Al-Sadeg, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering, had just put in a full night at the lab after a morning of classes with seemingly nothing to show for her efforts. She went home exhausted after struggling to analyze etch effects on graphene in the lab.

She thought about quitting. But then she thought of a better idea.

She contacted Shruti Subramanian, a doctoral candidate in the department and her graduate mentor.

“That’s the nice thing about having a grad student mentor. They’ve been there. They know you have a lot on your plate. They have that compassionate side,” said Al-Sadeg. “I feel safe when I’m working with her because I know if something goes wrong I can always talk to her. It makes you work better because you’re confident that no matter what you do, nothing huge is going to happen. You’re always being taken care of.”

Subramanian remembers talking with Al-Sadeg and sharing with her the times she too struggled. That day, Al-Sadeg learned in research that the results aren’t often linear.

“That’s the thing about research,” Al-Sadeg said. “You don’t know what you’re getting. I’m used to ‘if I put in the effort, I get results.’ Simple as that. But when it came to research it was not always like that. It took me awhile to be OK with that, and her being there played a huge role in my growth.”

The pair are collaborating in Josh Robinson’s lab to create epitaxial graphene, which might be key for developing transparent and flexible electronics. It’s a relationship where both benefit. Al-Sadeg advances her research skills ahead of her new job with Saudi Aramco. And Subramanian advances her research in her quest to work for a national lab or join academia.

“Penn State’s ability to position itself as an elite research institution for materials science is thanks in no small part to the dedication of our graduate and undergraduate researchers,” Robinson said. “The relationship between faculty and graduate and undergraduate students benefits all those involved.”

Subramanian sees yet another benefit.

“I personally look at it as a learning experience for myself,” Subramanian said. “I think it’s something that Dr. Robinson gives us the opportunity to do and it’s great because it teaches us, at a small scale, what it’s like to be a professor.”

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Last Updated November 03, 2017