Stevens Institute of Technology: Stevens Program Offers Students and Teachers Research Experiences, from Mapping the Brain to Studying Polymers

Madison Grigg, a senior from West Virginia University, is fascinated by the human brain and how it works, from the brain stem which controls crucial functions such as breathing and swallowing to the temporal lobes that deal with memory and hearing.

This past summer, Grigg was able to explore an area of the brain, lateral ventricles, in further detail through a special internship program at Stevens Institute of Technology.

“It was a wonderful experience because I got to conduct research and lab work,” said Griggs. “The work I did before was field research and dealing with data from field research, but this experience was more personalized and specific to the brain, which I love.”

Grigg was one of six undergraduate engineering and science students and two high school teachers who explored research in sustainable energy and bioengineering at Stevens.

The research experience, held virtually this year, was made possible through a three-year grant of $374,971 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience For Undergraduate Students (REU) and Research Experience For High School Teachers (RET) programs. The project, “REU/RET Site: Interdisciplinary Research Experience in Sustainable Energy and Bioengineering” by Pinar Akcora, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and Patricia Muisener, teaching associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, provides research and educational opportunities at Stevens to both undergraduate students and high school science teachers.

The REU/RET program was designed to create a vibrant research environment for undergraduate students outside of Stevens who have taken science and engineering courses and high school teachers interested in interdisciplinary research. It implements innovative ideas in sustainable energy and bioengineering; and educates students to become independent researchers with entrepreneurial thinking skills.

The program uniquely develops a network of mentoring relationships among high school teachers, faculty, and undergraduate students (including underrepresented minority students) that will support them in their graduate school and professional career paths. Additionally, the program educates teachers on sustainable energy and bioengineering, and helps them create lesson plans on nanotechnology and engineering, with the hope that they will increase students’ interest in STEM fields.

“Research opportunities with professional development components prepare students for graduate school application and research careers.” said Akcora. “I have been working with teachers as part of my outreach activities. It is important to educate teachers in science and engineering and keep them up to date on new majors, new careers and new developments in science and engineering.”

“This program provides an excellent opportunity to attract students and teachers from different areas and backgrounds to campus (even virtually the first year of the program) and enable them to interact, collaborate and perform research with Stevens faculty,” stated Muisener.

Six Stevens faculty led research in the program, including professors Antonia Zaferioiu (Department of Biomedical Engineering), Jae Chul Kim (Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science), and Johannes Weickenmeier and Nick Parziale (Department of Mechanical Engineering), along with Muisener and Akcora. The research participants included a teacher facilitator, Mariel Kolker – a Morristown High School Teacher with previous RET experience – who served as a mentor to both the teachers and students, as well as Deborah Brockaway from the Stevens Center for Innovation in Science and Engineering (CIESE). She worked with teachers on their lesson plans and provided a workshop series on “Incorporating Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning in the Science Classroom; Managing the Engineering Design Process in Class; Increasing Formative Assessment Strategies in the Classroom.”

“Providing research is important, but the innovative educational components are also important in preparing students to become next generation scientists and entrepreneurs, and also make them ready to apply for grad school,” said Akcora.

“I have been working with the teachers as part of my outreach efforts,” Akcora continued. “And to encourage students to choose STEM majors, it’s important to have strong mentors. So that’s why it’s important to educate teachers in science and engineering and keep them up to date on new majors, new careers and new developments in chemistry, biology and also in physics.”

This year’s REU program took place over eight weeks and the RET component was held in tandem the last four weeks. The program mainly focused on performing research, which included weekly participant meetings with progress reports, research seminars given by RET/REU faculty as well as guest speakers on diverse topics, including computational chemistry and sustainability. In addition, students attended seminars on varied subjects like science writing, career planning, as well as participating in various seminars given by Stevens faculty and staff including Research, Innovation & Entrepreneurship (RI&E) workshops given by David Zimmerman and Mary Ann Piazza, a seminar by Dr. Wei Zheng on developing effective mentoring networks and seminars on literature-searching and citing sources provided by Stevens Librarians Vicky Orlofsky and Courtney Walsh.

The teachers had the opportunity to attend research seminars with the REU students in addition to seminars on various topics from ethics to nanoscience. The REU and RET teachers also participated in a workshop on inclusive teaching with Liliana Delman and Edylyn Mettle-Thompson.

The summer program culminated with a research symposium, where attendees presented their posters on what they discovered, learned or developed.

Alexa N. Babick, a chemical engineering student from Northeastern University, worked on energy storage, specifically lithium metal batteries with Jae Chul Kim, assistant professor and coordinator of graduate studies in chemical engineering & materials science. His research focus is on developing new and better batteries made out of lithium-ion, sodium-ion and potassium-ion.

“I really enjoyed my time,” said Babick, whose research presentation was titled “Modeling anode geometry to suppress dendrite growth in Lithium-metal batteries.“

“The research was rewarding but it was also nice to be working with people who were doing vastly different stuff and to learn about what they were doing and what new things they discovered,” she said.

The turbine that Andrew Sayad’s worked on in his project.
Andrew J. Sayad, a mechanical engineering student from Fairleigh Dickinson University, worked on developing a nozzle that would go into a shock wind tunnel at the California Institute of Technology. The nozzle would help accelerate flow of air from regular speeds to hypersonic speeds. His advisor was Nicholaus Parziale, associate professor in mechanical engineering, who mainly focuses his research on hypersonic aerothermodynamics, the study of ultra-fast vehicles that move at more than Mach 5.

“[The program] was valuable because it confirmed for me that I want to go into research and graduate school for a doctoral degree,” Sayad said. “It was a great experience.”

Another student, Alexandros Pavlou, a chemical engineering student from Cooper Union, compiled research on polymers, specifically on microplastics, and how to mitigate their impact on the environment.

“Microplastics come from a lot of different sources: from cosmetics such as facial cleansers with exfoliating beads or as makeup filler to the washing of synthetic clothing,” he said. “The problem with microplastics is that they pollute the environment, they are ubiquitous, and they are being found in organisms such as fish.”

“What I took out of it is how to properly research,” Pavlou said. “I also wanted to give research a shot and see if I like it, and it turns out I do.”

Grigg did research under Johannes Weickenmeier, assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department. Weickenmeier specializes in characterizing the brain, studying its function and mechanics, and exploring brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases.

Grigg’s research was to take actual brain scans and make a 3D model of the brain’s lateral ventricles, cavities in the center of the brain that contain cerebrospinal fluid.

The work reinforced Grigg’s conviction to pursue graduate school and get a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and a minor in neuro-engineering.

“This summer really fit my interests,” she said. “I always thought, yes, I love neuroscience, but after taking this internship, it cemented that this is what I want to do.”

The 2021 Summer REU participants were:

Alexander Pavlou from Cooper Union,
Kayla Eng from County College of Morris,
Andrew J. Sayad from Fairleigh Dickinson University,
Madison Grigg from West Virginia University,
Alexa N. Babick from Northeastern University, and
Mika Naseef from Stevens Institute of Technology.
The 2021 RET participants were

Jamie Kubiak, a chemistry teacher from New York, and
Ikechukwu Onyema, also a chemistry teacher at East Orange High School in New Jersey.
Next year the program will be 10 weeks long and will expand to eight undergraduate students and four teachers. It is planned to be held in person. More on the program, which will run for two more years, can be read on the REU/RET website and in this article.