Undergraduates showcase research, communication skills at symposium

David Kubarek
December 12, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students throughout Penn State’s STEM-based majors brought two semesters of work to life at the recent WISER/MURE/FURP undergraduate research symposium, where they presented their research and answered questions from other students, staff and faculty, many from outside of their fields.

That was the case for Grace Van Patter, a first-year student majoring in meteorology and atmospheric science, who fielded questions about her research comparing the carbon flux — a measurement of how plants absorb and release carbon dioxide, and a key to understanding climate change — of two common types of Pennsylvania vegetation: grass and corn.

Van Patter found that corn absorbs considerably more CO2 than grass. But, more importantly, she found that she really enjoyed communicating her research to others.

“I appreciated their curiosity and their questions allowed me to think about my research in new ways,” Van Patter said. “Learning how to effectively present your work and engage with people is an invaluable skill. I also liked learning about other students’ research outside of my major.”

WISER, or Women in Science, is available to first-year undergraduates. MURE, or Minority Undergraduate Research Experience, is available to underrepresented minority students (African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander) who are first-year, sophomores, or juniors. FURP, or First-year Undergraduate Research Program, is available to all first-year students; those with economic hardship are encouraged to apply.

The event gives students a chance to further concepts they’re learning in class, said Alexis Miller, a sophomore majoring in materials science and engineering. 

Her research focuses on the microstructure and mechanical properties of nickel-based superalloys created using additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. The process might supplant many machined metal processes because it creates less waste and can be more easily customized. 

Miller wants to help characterize these metals so that companies can understand how 3D-printed components will be different than their machined counterparts. 

These are the results that Allison Beese, associate professor of materials science and engineering and mechanical engineering, hoped for when she started the symposium two years ago as a way to culminate the diverse research that was coming out of these programs.

“This symposium builds off of the great work that comes out of the WISER/MURE/FURP programs, which provides a mechanism for students to involved in research early in their undergraduate studies,” Beese said. “The symposium at the end of these programs provides students with an avenue to communicate their research with others who are outside their field, building confidence and excitement in their own work, while also inspiring them to continue research through the exposure to the work their peers are doing.”

Through the symposium, Beese said, students learn how to tell the story of their research while exploring how others do the same.

Katie Kohlman, a sophomore majoring in meteorology and atmospheric science, said she entered college knowing little about what “research” actually meant but found real-world experiences through the symposium.

“I learned how to concisely present my findings to different audiences and how to appeal to people of different academic backgrounds and interests,” Kohlman said, adding that it inspired her to further pursue research.

Wayne Zhao, a sophomore in materials science and engineering, showcased how computers can calculate potential uses for materials. Specifically, he looked at perovskites, and wants to better understand these to build a database for more complex calculations related the materials. 

Zhao said the symposium was an avenue for advancing concepts he learned in the classroom while exposing him to a career in academia.

That sentiment was echoed by Van Patter.

“Programs like WISER/MURE/FURP are a great way to get hands-on experience with research as well as network with the faculty, Van Patter said. “Most importantly, they offer the chance to be part of something bigger than classes. They’re a chance to join the community of scientists who are making the world a better place every day.” 

  • Students present research during the WISER/MURE/FURP undergraduate research symposium.

    Students present research during the WISER/MURE/FURP undergraduate research symposium. 

    IMAGE: Patricia L. Craig
  • Students present research during the WISER/MURE/FURP undergraduate research symposium.

    Students present research during the WISER/MURE/FURP undergraduate research symposium. 

    IMAGE: Patricia L. Craig
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Last Updated January 23, 2020