Ten Undergraduate Students Participated in Materials-Related Research Program Sponsored by the National Science Foundation



By Simon Morrow
Group of REU students outdoors

A group of students in science and engineering from several institutions made up the first group of participants in a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program focusing on materials characterization at Illinois Institute of Technology in summer 2021. 

The REU application was open to undergraduates nationally. Ten students, including four Illinois Tech students, were selected for the 10-week summer program. ​​This REU program is designed to provide students with hands-on experience in materials science research with an emphasis on the use of synchrotron and lab-based X-rays for materials characterization.

Aiming to leverage Illinois Tech’s broad research programs in materials and biological sciences with its significant resources and expertise in X-ray sources and techniques, faculty members Amir Mostafaei and Ali Khounsary developed and submitted an REU proposal on “Characterization of Materials Using Synchrotron and X-ray Based Tools” to the NSF.

“We would like to provide the students with hands-on research exploring the applications of X-rays in materials and biological characterization,” says Mostafaei, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, who co-led the program. “The main goal was to break the wall of hesitancy some students may have around engaging in research.”

Jonnasia Sledge (BIOL 3rd Year), a student participant from Claflin University in South Carolina, says, “This specific program caught my attention because there was an abundance of different projects to work on, ranging from biology to materials science.”

Students in the summer program worked directly with professors from the physicsmechanical, materials, and aerospace engineeringbiomedical engineering, and biology departments at Illinois Tech conducting research projects developing everything from batteries to chemotherapy treatments to graphic user interfaces. 

Mostafaei and Khounsary aimed to make the program available to all undergraduate students, regardless of their level of previous research experience. For many students, this was their first opportunity to work in a laboratory setting. Another goal was to encourage the participation of students from underrepresented communities. 

“By reaching out to a range of institutions including the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, we brought together students from diverse backgrounds for the summer program. Most of the 2021 summer program participants were from underrepresented groups in STEM,” says Khounsary, research professor of physics.

The professors hope the program will help students build confidence in their own abilities and skills, enabling them to explore opportunities to engage in research activities. 

“The final goal is that we want to encourage them to apply for graduate schools, whether or not they are going to come to Illinois Tech or somewhere else,” says Mostafaei. “We want to show them how successful they can be if they take the research direction by giving them new experiences and skills.”

In the program’s weekly meetings, there were lectures by faculty and staff on various relevant topics as well as presentations by students on their ongoing research offering the entire group greater insight into the broader materials-related research. 

An Illinois Tech student participant, Toyin Openibo (CHE 4th Year) says, “One of the main areas of growth was in my public speaking. I’ve always had difficulty when it comes to presentations. As a result of the weekly presentations, I was able to not only practice my speaking and presentation skills but also do it among professionals.”

Although limited by restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the students did participate in an architectural tour of Chicago and visited Nel PreTech Corporation, a Chicago-area company that provides industrial CT-scan service for a range of industries.

The REU award was one of a select group to be co-funded by the United States Department of Defense’s Awards to Stimulate and Support Undergraduate Research Experiences (ASSURE) program. 

Overall, the program received $404,000 to support 10 students each year for three years. 

“We’re happy to have had this as an in-person research experience despite challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We had an excellent group of students and participating professors. Everyone worked together to make this summer a success,” says Khounsary. “We’re grateful to the NSF for this award, and we are working on next summer’s program on the same topical theme. We encourage students from around the country, as well as Illinois Tech, particularly from the underrepresented groups, to apply for the summer 2022 program. The program will be announced and take applications in early 2022.” 

More information about the 2021 research projects is at the Illinois Tech REU website.

Image: Amir Mostafaei, Ali Khounsary, Gabe Arter, Megan Burrill, Jesus Armando Chavez-Lechuga, Sara Fryzlewicz, Eyob Ghebreiesus, Morgan McCoy, Toyin Openibo, Daniel Rossi, Jonnasia Sledge, U’Manda Williams