Undergraduates get taste for research at Penn State through NSF program

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A dozen students from around the nation recently wrapped up their summer research projects in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, funded through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

The REU program supports active research participation by undergraduate students in any of the areas of research funded by the NSF. REU projects involve students in meaningful ways in ongoing research programs or in research projects specifically designed for the REU program. Climate science was the focus of the department’s REU, which involves mentors from the department as well as from several departments across the university including chemistry, civil and environmental engineering, geography and geosciences.

Raymond Najjar, professor of oceanography at Penn State and co-director of the program for the department, said it’s an opportunity for students seeking to advance their education to get a feel for the graduate student experience while planting the seed for future research projects. It also brings students, often from smaller schools, to a top research university.

Raymond Najjar

Raymond Najjar, professor of oceanography and co-director of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at Penn State, said the program lets undergraduates see if graduate school is a good fit for them.

Image: David Kubarek

“That’s a real focus of this program, Najjar said. “The main goal isn’t to get students into graduate school but to show them what a graduate student experience is like. For graduate students, summer research is such a critical time. During the semester, particularly in the early years of their program, students are really focused on courses. The summer is when they do the most research and it becomes a central part of their experience. This allows undergraduate students to have that experience and to see if it’s something they enjoy doing.”

The department has hosted this REU for six years, beginning under the leadership of Jose Fuentes, professor of meteorology, and Jon Nese, associate head of the undergraduate program in meteorology (who continues to co-direct the program), and is seeking a five-year extension.

Caroline Cabeza

Caroline Cabeza, in the department of mathematics at Seattle University, looked at effects of climate and topography related to wildfires in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences at Penn State.

Image: Patricia Craig

Caroline Cabeza, a senior majoring in mathematics at Seattle University, said she sought out the highly-ranked program — and Penn State — because she wanted to pair her love of math with her interest in combating climate change. Cabeza plans to attend Penn State for graduate school.

“I wanted the research experience because I wanted to see what graduate school was like,” said Cabeza. “The experience was amazing. It really gives you an idea of what graduate-level research is like. Some days you don’t get results and nothing is working and the code you wrote is failing but you also get a taste of the successes. The REU is an experience, like an internship for science students.”

Cabeza researched how climate and topography impact wildfires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem under the guidance of Erica Smithwick, professor of geography, and Jamie Peeler, a geography graduate student.

David Stensrud, professor and head of the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science and a mentor for the REU program, said it’s an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in a research environment.

“Some of these students come from institutions that are smaller and focus mainly on teaching for undergraduate students,” Stensrud said. “It really does help to have a graduate program where you have faculty engaged in research activities. Faculty members can take a facet of their research that makes sense for a summer project and give that to a REU student to complete.”

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Last Updated August 17, 2018