UA summer science research program trains future graduate students

August 10, 2009

By hammersmith

Rebecca Ruiz-McGill, University Communications

Eighty-six of the United States’ and Mexico’s top undergraduates, most from underrepresented populations, are participating in 10 weeks of intensive research at The University of Arizona.  

The UA’s Graduate College Summer Research Opportunity Program for undergraduate students, or SROP, is a collaboration among UA faculty and colleges to prepare the next generation of scientists for graduate school. 

The program provides research opportunities and other benefits, including funding for U.S. students accepted into the program.

The program is funded through a variety of UA and federal programs including the Minority Access to Research Careers program, the U.S. Department of Education’s Ronald E. McNair Achievement program, the National Institutes of Health Minority Health Disparities Program and several optical sciences grants. 

Students from the top Mexican universities are part of the Mexico Science and Engineering Research Program, which provides funding for its students. 

The UA recruits scholars from universities throughout the U.S. and Mexico based on their high academic achievement, research experience and a desire to pursue graduate education in the fields of science, education, health, engineering, humanities and the social sciences.

“It is extremely rewarding to see the caliber of these students, their love for learning and the hard work they are willing to put into their research and other learning opportunities we provide through the program,” said Maria Teresa Velez, associate dean of the UA Graduate College.   “Many come from poor backgrounds and the academic distance they have traveled to be where they are foretell the great accomplishments they are likely to make.” 

Most of the students are college juniors or seniors currently enrolled in universities throughout the U.S. and Mexico, and some are enrolled as undergraduates at the UA.

The program prepares the students for graduate studies by pairing the student with a UA researcher with similar background and interests, but the student is responsible for conducting research and presenting findings at the end of the 10-week program.

Many are conducting state-of-the-art research on cancer, optics, mechanisms to cool microchips, biohazards, regional history, optimal learning methodologies and other issues.  

One student had the opportunity to work in the UA’s Center for Integrated Access Networks, or CIAN. The network is directed by UA optical sciences chair of photonics and lasers professor Nasser Peyghambarian and is one of only 15 engineering research centers of its kind in the country.

Edgar Madril, from Nogales, Ariz., is a sophomore attending Pima Community College and is finalizing his summer research work at CIAN. CIAN is a collaborative center that works with eight other U.S. universities to create an advanced optical access network, which will be capable of delivering data more than a thousand times faster to users at lower cost than they now pay to connect to information databases and communication networks.

“The goal of the NSF center is solving the problem of next generation communications networks to allow very cheap very high bandwidth for everyone,” said optical sciences professor Robert Norwood, who oversaw Madril’s research. “But a parallel application is using the same materials to make magnetic field sensors like what is found in a compass. A compass senses earth’s magnetic field and tells us where north is. For a number of applications, we would like to sense very low levels of magnetic fields.”

Madril worked side-by-side with associate research scientist Ram Voorakaranam, a part of Norwood’s team who said the summer intern worked on “the holy grail of magnetic field sensing research.”

Based on how small of a magnetic field that can be detected, there is a spectrum of applications that can be developed – with detecting mineral deposits and brain imaging being the coveted application researchers are trying to solve.

Madril designed and tested Helmholtz magnetic coils and a coil driver that would generate a constant current providing a uniform magnetic field from which new materials and devices can be tested.

The work exposed Madril to design tools, modeling tools, optics and electronics giving him a multidisciplinary experience.

He learned electronics, optics, electromagnetics, mechanical design and machining, and got a good idea of what it is like to be researcher – in fact it was almost like having the experience of graudate school compressed into 10 weeks,” Voorakaranam said. 

“I gained a huge advantage working here over the summer. It wasn’t easy but I really enjoyed it,” Madril said.

Madril and the other young scholars will present their findings during the program’s poster session where UA faculty will review, critique and advise the students.

“There is incredible talent and high aspirations among many students who may not have had the opportunity to be exposed to research and the contributions that discovery can make to Arizona, the country and the world,” Velez said. “The Graduate College is merely trying to expose them to these opportunities. In our experience, that is all they need: they take off on their own after that to obtain master’s, doctorates, law, pharmacy and medical degrees.”

This year marks the 14th Annual Undergraduate Summer Research Program with the poster session and closing ceremony being held on Tuesday, Aug. 11 from 1 to 3 p.m.

The summer program ends Tuesday with a closing ceremony, featuring Meredith Hay, UA executive vice president and provost, as the keynote speaker. The closing ceremony takes place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at the UA Student Union Memorial Center’s North Ballroom.