This summer, students from as far east as Georgia and as far west as Hawaii have converged on South Dakota State University’s campus to get hands-on research experience.
The Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering was selected as a Research Experience for Undergraduates site for the third consecutive time, with $400,730 in funding being provided by the National Science Foundation. Stephen Gent, a mechanical engineering professor, and Jung-Han Kimn, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, are the principal investigators.
Gent’s and Kimn’s REU program, Promoting Leadership in Advanced Research Computing for Interdisciplinary Sectors (PLAINS), immerses undergraduate students in a 10-week holistic, real-world research experience focused on the responsible and ethical conduct of research, emotional intelligence and career development.
“The Research Experience for Undergraduates program is very, very instrumental to students who want to actively pursue and engage in research as their professional career,” Gent said. “The National Science Foundation has recognized a long time ago that having more of our students be engaged earlier on in research at the undergraduate level is crucial for our workforce needs and challenges that we face in the 21st century in the United States.”
“We need a more qualified workforce,” Kimn said. “We work hard to help our students navigate the research experience and hopefully this experience will help them point to a better future—I strongly believe this contributes to our society. This is the way South Dakota State University can help this country and this community.”
Since 2012, Gent and Kimn have worked with dozens of students from 35 different states. The schools the students come from are diverse, ranging from large four-year state universities to small private institutions, community colleges and everything in between. Some of the students are even currently enrolled at SDSU.
“It has been very interesting to see the backgrounds and experiences of all of our students and how they’re able to work well with one another and to be able to get ramped up very, very quickly to do cutting-edge research here in our programs,” Gent said.
Through a rigorous application and interview process, Gent and Kimn select the students and assign them a research project that they can “sink their teeth into” over the course of the summer. The research projects involve high performance computing, big data and computationally intensive models in the areas of:
- Mathematics, statistics and computational sciences
- HPC cyberinfrastructure development and optimalization
- Engineered systems
- Biological and medical sciences
“South Dakota State University is very well positioned to facilitate these research experiences for undergraduate sites,” Gent said. “We’re a very comfortably sized institution and a very well-respected program for bringing in students from across the country. We are the right size program for it. We have the resources; we have the personnel; we have the professors, the mentors, the graduate students and the support staff that are very committed to our students’ success here.”
Selected students are provided with a $6,000 stipend, reimbursed travel costs to and from SDSU, meal allowance and on-campus housing in Brown Hall.
High level projects
At the start of the REU program earlier this summer, Andrew Brandt, a junior majoring in computer science and mathematics at Concordia University, Nebraska, was assigned a project on a topic that was completely new to him. Brandt was asked to research the impact of the graphics processing unit acceleration on deep learning applications.
“You take the GPU of a computer and you can use it to run deep learning algorithms. Traditionally, it was only run on the central processing unit but when you run it on the GPU, it speeds up greatly. So my project is a little bit about seeing how it speeds up and maybe what parameters you can change to speed it up more compared to other times,” Brandt said. “I think it’s just very awesome to be learning right now because it’s a very hot topic for research and businesses.”
Despite not knowing much about GPU just a few short weeks ago, Brandt has picked up a solid understanding of the topic and has been able to dive into his research. He has been using MATLAB, a programming platform designed specifically for engineers and scientists to analyze and design systems and products, to tackle his research project.
“I had never used (MATLAB) before this summer, so that’s a very fun thing to get to learn how to do,” Brandt said. “You use that because it works really well with deep learning, and they have a bunch of stuff built into it already to do that.
The type of research projects vary from student to student. Katherine Butler, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from the University of Iowa, is working on creating a 3D printed cooled heat exchanger for power plants.
“I use computer-aided design and computational fluid dynamics software to design and test these heat exchangers to try and find ones that are more thermally conductive than other ones, because normally they’re made of metal and plastic is what we use with 3D printers,” Butler explained.
The most surprising aspect of the program—for Butler—has been the amount of hands-on learning participants get to do.
“I work in the lab with three other undergrads, and then we have a few grad students in the lab with a lot of the work on your own,” Butler said. “But the grad students and mentors are always there to help when you have questions.”
As Butler explains, the REU program has been very helpful because she has gotten the opportunity to learn and work with high performance computing systems—something she would not have had the opportunity to do at her home institution.
“I know I want to go into mechanical engineering, but I’m not exactly sure what—this has been a great help in figuring out what I’m interested in and what I want to do with the future,” Butler said. “It’s been super nice to just be able to think about how I will be able to apply this to my future career and even in future classroom settings.”
As part of the REU program, students are encouraged and have the opportunity to receive financial support to attend regional and national conferences. For Butler, she presented her work at the South Dakota EPSCoR Research Symposium held on SDSU’s campus in late July and is planning to present at the International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in Columbus, Ohio, this fall.
“We’ve had several successes with our students being able to complete their research projects during these 10 weeks and then be able to present their work at professional societies’ conferences and other programs that are out there,” Gent said. “They are able to hold their own and actually be very proficient in working above their academic standings, presenting work with professional researchers as well as graduate students that are out there.”
The REU program is—for almost all students—their first research experience. Part of the program’s purpose is to expose undergraduate students to what research work is like.
“It’s very important for many students to be involved in research, especially at the undergraduate level— in addition to preparing them for careers to be professional researchers as they pursue their graduate degrees or go into academia, national labs, corporate research positions or technology development—things like that,” Gent said. “It really practices and reinforces what they learn in the classroom and how to think and apply what they learned in the classroom in new and interesting ways.”
Several past REU site participants from Gent and Kimn’s program have gone on to become professional researchers for both academia and national laboratories, including Argonne National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of Michigan, Pennsylvania State University, the University of California Santa Barbara and the University of Florida, among others. In addition, multiple REU site alums have been awarded Graduate Research Fellowships from the NSF, each of which are in excess of $100,000. One alum was also recently awarded a Department of Defense National Defense Science and an Engineering Graduate Fellowship.
“I still communicate with some of them—they have reached out to contact me,” Kimn said. “After this REU program is over, they move to another research experience and many have finished with their Ph.D. and are working for some company or school. I’m very proud of them.”
Working hard—and making friends
Each morning, Monday through Friday, the students and mentors meet to discuss the progress of their projects and ask questions. They also play a little bit of trivia. For Shyra LaGarde, a junior engineering major at Valdosta State University, this means a little extra work.
“Every day is something new to learn,” LaGarde said. “We kick off with trivia so I’m always taking notes about what’s crazy to learn and sharing it with my friends.”
Social events are also scattered across the calendar for the students. During the weekends this summer, the students have made trips to the Hillcrest Aquatic Center and the Summer Art’s Festival.
“Everyone in our group is just awesome,” Brandt said. “I think they’re very hard workers, and it’s nice to meet so many different people.
“If you’re curious at all about research or you’re just looking for something to do over the summer, I would say it’s a good investment of your time,” Brandt added. “I would definitely recommend it.”