A summer of excitement, enlightenment
Juliana Herran and Ibro Tutic, who are majoring in Chemistry and Physics at the University of Northern Iowa respectively, came to know about the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL) from different sources.
Ibro got an email from his department that said Dr. Pavel Lukashev was looking for students interested to participate in the program. He met with the Physics professor and expressed his interest, and he was on board.
Juliana, on the other hand, came to know about the program at a conference.
“I attended a conference at my school [in the Department of Chemistry] where they explained the ongoing research projects in the physics department,” the Chemistry major recalls. “I got interested in this particular one, applied, got accepted, and got in.”
So, off they went to Nebraska this summer with Dr. Lukashev for theoretical and experimental studies of various Heusler compounds.
“I did computational analyses of four different half-metal Heusler and semi-Heusler metal alloys, and an experimental semi-Heusler analysis,” Juliana says. “The computations were based on VASP [Vienna Ab-initio Simulation Package].”
“I essentially ran calculations that gave us an idea of the properties of Heusler alloys,” Ibro says. “These calculations showed the contribution of spin up and spin down states from each metal in the alloy.”
Heusler compounds exhibit highly spin-polarized current at a room temperature. In case of 100% spin polarization such materials are called half-metals, and have enormous potential for practical device applications in an emerging field of spintronics.
Juliana and Ibro believe the studies are significant because of the potential application of these materials in spintronic devices such as hard drives or computer memory and also because these studies may contribute to discovering new Heusler alloys.
The REU program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, recruits faculty/student pairs from regional four-year colleges and universities for summer research with the faculty at the UNL’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC).
The program benefits students, especially those interested to go to graduate school, in multiple ways, says Dr. Lukashev.
“First, students get unprecedented experience working with world-class professional researchers and scholars. The experience is invaluable, especially as a transition step from predominantly undergraduate institution to a graduate school.
“Second, typically REU program results in publication(s) in professional journals. For example, Ibro Tutic and Juliana Herran (students working with me this last summer) are co-authors on four papers I recently submitted for publication (one has been published already, others are under review). Peer-reviewed publications strongly increase student's chances of acceptance to a good graduate program.
“Third, students participating in the REU program typically benefit from a wide range of academic networking opportunities. And when it comes to career advancement, professional network is one of the most important aspects.
“Last but not least, students simply meet new friends and colleagues (the REU program usually provides various informal socializing opportunities).”
Juliana and Ibro cannot agree more.
“The experience was amazing,” Juliana says. “I was able to make connections with scholars and students from other disciplines. It also gave me confidence in my work.”
The work environment at the MRSEC is “very good,” she adds. “The people who work there are wonderful and helpful. I learned lots of things from them.”
“Extremely enjoyable” is how Ibro describes his experience.
“I learned a lot about Heusler alloys, UNIX scripting while working on the UNL supercomputer, and what actual academic research entails,” he says.
Ibro rates his meeting with other students in this program who, like him, are “extremely interested in science” as one of the best things that he has experienced.
“I don’t really interact often with people who have that kind of drive to explore the realm of science,” he says. “Everybody was extremely intelligent and always had something interesting to add to the conversation.”
It was not all work in any way.
“I played sports with them often, almost daily in some cases,” Ibro recalls. “Everybody was there to have a good time and have fun.”
And there was competitiveness, which he did not expect.
“You could tell that everyone had some sort of a competitive nature, especially when playing soccer/ultimate.” he says. “But it just made playing sports so much more enjoyable since I am not used to playing at that level of competitiveness anymore.”
Like Juliana, Ibro also thinks highly of the people who work at the center.
“The thing that I liked most about working at the MRSEC at the UNL was the people I met while working there,” he says.
He also liked the program called “Science by the Slice.”
“Usually every Friday they would buy pizza and students could come in and listen to a science-related lecture from a faculty at the UNL and have lunch,” he says. “I learned a good amount of material regarding physics [from these lectures].”
For Dr. Lukashev, who worked as a post-doctoral research associate in the University of Nebraska system, first in Omaha (UNO) and then in Lincoln (UNL), between 2007 and 2014, it was kind of a homecoming.
“I know well people at the Physics Department at UNL, and it was a pleasure to meet with them again, and to work with them,” he says.
“So, it was not only a professional interaction (although this aspect was very important), but also an opportunity to meet with friends and spend some good time together,” he adds.
Was there any glitch or hitch? Anything funny or interesting?
“The crazy pictures taken with other students and faculty were funny,” Juliana says.
Ibro remembers the day when he could not log into the supercomputer.
“I triple-checked login name and password but could not log in,” he recounts. “After a while of trying to fix the issue myself, I emailed someone at the support center.”
So, what happened? Ibro had somehow forgotten that the first letter in the password was capital.
“I felt like a complete idiot when I made the first letter capital and it worked,” he recalls. “Keep in mind that I had been logging in daily for about two or three weeks before this incident.”
A firm believer in teamwork
Shannon Sturgeon’s decision to major in electrical engineering technology was “a natural continuation” from an associate’s degree in electrical technology and employment as an apprentice electrician at Interstates Construction.
However, the inspiration to take this road came a lot earlier — way back in the high school days.
“In high school, I worked for my dad doing residential construction,” Shannon says. “He didn’t do electrical work but I enjoyed that hands-on work enough to pursue it further.”
The first step in that direction was enrolment in the Associate of Applied Science program at the Iowa Central Community College.
“The most interesting project I've done so far has probably been during my time at Iowa Central,” Shannon says. “I had to wire up an Allen-Bradley PLC [factory automation equipment manufactured by Rockwell Automation] to an I/O bank of console-mounted pushbuttons and lights, and then program it to make the lights flash in various sequences when different buttons were pushed.”
Shannon graduated in the spring of 2015 and started looking for a university that had an Electrical Engineering Technology program and that would accept credits in electrical from Iowa Central. UNI did both.
“The experience [at UNI] so far has been… busy!” Shannon says. “I hadn’t been a student since the spring of 2015. So, getting back into the swing is taking some work.”
“But it’s a good kind of busy,” Shannon adds. “It’s like being at a carnival: it’s crowded and loud. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re doing but you have a blast anyway.”
The coursework? “Not easy… but manageable,” Shannon says. “I've been able to draw on my community college experience, my own skills, and the resources here to get things accomplished.”
“It probably helps that I'm taking Strategies for Academic Success,” Shannon adds. “I used to think that I wouldn’t need it, but I really appreciate it now.”
Shannon did not identify as a “computer person,” either. “Sure, I own a computer and use it as much as the next person but I didn’t think I had any affinity for it.”
The Intro to C++ class changed that.
“Somehow, I’m good at writing in C++ and find it a lot of fun,” Shannon says. “But I’m definitely not going to drop everything and become a computer science major.”
A member of the No Shame Theater Group on campus, which meets twice a month and performs original artistic content, Shannon likes “to dance in night clubs, read tarot cards, and sew” in free time.
A degree in electrical engineering technology makes one ready for a wide variety of jobs, Shannon believes. “Once I graduate from UNI, I plan to get a job with some industrial company in California.”
Shannon does not buy into the stereotype for STEM that “it tends to attract loners, people who don’t work well with others.”
“Out there in the real world, you absolutely have to work as a team to get things done,” Shannon adds. “It doesn’t matter if you’re programming a VFD [variable frequency drive] or drawing up the prints for an ethanol plant’s process system or researching medicinal side-effects. We all work better when we work together.”
Thus, Shannon’s short and simple but strong advice for students interested to major in STEM subjects is: “Be collaborative.”
Immersed in electrical engineering
Dr. Sadik Kucuksari, an Assistant Professor in Electrical Engineering Technology at the University of Northern Iowa, developed an interest in electrical engineering when he was a high school student.
“I found solving science and math problems more enjoyable,” he recalls. “I liked opening broken parts of radio, etc., and always wanted to fix them.”
In summer, he would help one of his father’s friends at his electrical shop, which helped him get familiar with circuits and schematics, and stoked his interest in electrical engineering even more.
However, selection of a college major is different in Turkey, where he is from, than in the United States, says Dr. Kucuksari.
“There is a nationwide university entrance exam that approximately 1.5 million high school graduates take to enter a university every year,” he explains.
“We had to make our major selections together with the universities before entering the exam. Based on the score that we got from the exam, we were assigned to a university and a major.”
The system has changed a little since, he adds. “Now, students make their selections after the exam, based on their exam score.”
His preferences for college major were mostly related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
“Science education, math education, medicine, engineering were the majors I selected,” he recalls. “However, my dream was to be a math or science teacher or an engineer when I (then a sophomore in high school) started preparing for the entrance exam.”
His elder brother, an electrical engineer, was also a major source of inspiration and support.
“He had already graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and started to work when I was taking the entrance exam,” Dr. Kucuksari says. “I got a lot of insight from him about the field.”
Subsequently, Dr. Kucuksari was enrolled in Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul as an Electrical Engineering major, and received both his B.S. and M.S. degrees there.
Then, he came to the U.S. for his Ph.D. “My Ph.D. advisor [at the Arizona State University] was a person with strong field experience,” he says. “He loved teaching and helping young people.”
After receiving his Ph.D., he joined the University of Arizona for his post-doctoral study in Systems and Industrial Engineering, which provided him with “a different insight and point of view to engineering problems.”
After a year and a half of post-doctoral study, Dr. Kucuksari joined Alabama A&M University in Huntsville as an Assistant Professor in Electrical Engineering. Two years later, he decided it was time to move on, and started to apply for different positions.
“I ended up accepting the offer from the Department of Technology at UNI,” he says. “I liked UNI EET program for its hands-on focus.”
Dr. Kucuksari’s research focuses on power and energy systems.
“I am working on how the existing power grid can better serve the increasing demand through additions of renewable and distributed energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines,” he says.
“I am also working on how we can integrate the electrical vehicle charging systems into the electrical grid more efficiently,” he adds. “Overall, my research area focuses on grid modernization and efficient integration of renewable energy sources.
Dr. Kucuksari enjoys working with students.
“It provides me with an opportunity to share my knowledge with them,” he says. “It makes me happy as I see them learning and achieving something.”
“You can see their progress all the time on a specific study,” he adds. “It also provides a good group study. Travelling with students to present the work is enjoyable since you share more with them outside the university environment.”
Dr. Kucuksari is currently advising a doctoral student in industrial technology on successful integration of photovoltaics (PV) to the existing distribution grid. “Our focus is on how we can utilize the PV systems for voltage control in the distribution grid,” he says.
He is also the advisor of the Solar Boat Club in the UNI Department of Technology.
“Undergraduate students (mostly EET students) work on a boat to run it through solar panels and batteries,” he explains. “They attend an international competition every year to promote clean energy and river/water cleanness. The group focuses on how solar energy source can be utilized efficiently to run a solar boat.”
Dr. Kucuksari believes numbers and formulas make students of afraid of the STEM field. “If students can understand what numbers mean by getting involved in hands-on experiments, they will appreciate why we have those numbers and how those formulas are constructed,” he says.
“They [the numbers and formulas] come from nowhere but the real world,” he adds. “Hands-on work will provide you with greater insight to understand the concepts better.”
Dr. Kucuksari also believes students should be organized, focused, and passionate when learning new subjects. “This will provide you with step-by-step learning,” he says.
His other advice for students is to have good night’s sleep because “good sleep helps you digest your learning.”
Broadening the horizon
He decided to study physics in college during his junior or senior year in high school in Armenia where he is originally from. It wasn’t any particular individual or incident or experience that had influenced the decision; it was physics itself.
“Since I started learning physics in high school, I have always enjoyed the subject,” says Dr. Pavel Lukashev, an assistant professor in physics at the University of Northern Iowa.
So, after high school, he enrolled in the Yerevan State University for undergraduate studies in physics and received a Diploma (equivalent to B.S.) in 1996. Four years later, he obtained his M.S. in Industrial Engineering and Systems Management from the American University of Armenia.
Then, he set out for the United States where he got his M.S. and Ph.D. in physics from the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in 2003 and 2007 respectively.
Between 2007 and 2014, he worked as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Nebraska system — first in Omaha (UNO) and then in Lincoln (UNL). “As a research associate, I was involved in various research projects in computational and theoretical condensed matter physics and materials science,” says Dr. Lukashev.
He joined the Department of Physics at UNI in August 2014; he liked that it “offers excellent opportunities in both academic research and teaching.”
“For example, our department owns a 20-node supercomputer which I use to perform all my research calculations,” explains Dr. Lukashev. “This was a major factor, as I couldn’t do my research if this machine was not available.”
He also liked the overall atmosphere at the department, especially his colleagues who are “excellent, very helpful, and friendly.”
Dr. Lukashev is currently working on a number of projects in computational materials science, more specifically, in the field of spintronics (i.e., spin-based electronics).
“I do research on the so-called half-metals, which are materials with potential device application in modern electronics, for example, in magneto-resistive random access memories (MRAM),” he says.
“I also study how external pressure can tune and improve various properties of magnetic materials, and have recently submitted a few papers for publication on this subject,” he adds.
Dr. Lukashev enjoys working with students in undergraduate research projects and believes these projects give them “valuable computational skills which they can later use in graduate school or on the job market.”
He is also a strong believer in active involvement of STEM students with faculty members in research projects.
“This involvement boosts their career, develops scientific culture, and provides them with knowledge and skills which is usually not available in the regular classroom environment,” he explains.
“Meaningful research and a few publications or presentations really lift students’ résumé to an entirely new level, for future job or graduate school applications,” he adds. “Also, students may gain a lot by simply talking to their faculty advisors about future career opportunities.”
So, one of his advices for students interested to major in STEM subjects at UNI is to get involved in research projects with a faculty advisor – if possible, in publishable research projects.
However, his first and foremost advice for students is: “Work hard!” “It really pays back in the future career, be it graduate school or industry,” he says.
Dr. Lukashev also believes students should broaden their horizons.
“I have noticed that sometimes students limit their potential career choices to only a handful of opportunities,” he says. “This shouldn’t be so.”
Defined and driven by research
In high school, one of her teachers suggested that she go into scientific illustration. “I guess I was a good artist then,” says Dr. Julie Kang, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Northern Iowa.
With a career in scientific illustration in mind, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in studio and fine arts, with art history as a minor, from McMaster University in Canada.
She then enrolled in the University of Toronto for a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, with a zoology minor.
However, in the course of her second bachelor’s degree, Dr. Kang took a class in plant anatomy that would shape her future.
“I really enjoyed my plant anatomy class, mostly because of my professor,” she recalls.
“I worked in her lab to do an undergraduate project. I just loved her research program and ended up working with plants.”
Thus, her career plan changed — exit scientific illustration, enter plant biology.
Dr. Kang completed her doctoral studies in plant biology from the University of Toronto, and went on to do postdoctoral work at the University of California, Davis, where she began to incorporate both the evolution of leaf and vascular development into her own research program.
Her next stop was the University of Northern Iowa.
“I wanted to be at a school where teaching and research were equally important to me,” she says. “UNI gave me the opportunity to do both, and that’s something that I that I have enjoyed by being here at UNI.”
Dr. Kang’s research emphasizes the strong link between evolutionary and development processes. “We always talk about development but really you can’t think about development without thinking about how we got to that point,” she says.
In her laboratory at UNI, Dr. Kang and her students study development of leaf shape and vein pattern in evolutionarily related plant species that exhibit different leaf types.
“Leaf shape and vein patterning share genes,” she explains. “What we see is this conservation in vein patterning along with the leaf shape, regardless of whether it’s a compound leaf or a simple leaf.”
“It’s really just getting to the question: ‘why are vein patterns conserved between species?’” she adds.
The answer to this question will help Dr. Kang and her students to uncover ancestral relationships between different plant species, and understand how developmental processes contribute to evolutionary changes.
Her most current research involves plants in the grape family Vitaceae. The group includes plants with a variety of leaf types—simple, compound, lobed—and there remain a number of unanswered questions about the evolution and development of leaf shape in this group of plants, Dr. Kang says.
She uses a morphometric computer software to analyze size and shape of leaves, and examines quantitatively how morphology and development correlate across different species.
Collaboration with other scientists is a high point of her research experience, Dr. Kang says. “What excites me is being able to collaborate. Going beyond UNI and doing collaborations with other researchers.”
“Everyone has different talents and different ideas,” she says. “When I’m able to make connections with other researchers, I think that’s what gets me really excited because it just takes your own research to another level.”
A recent collaboration, published in the journal Botany in 2013, investigated conserved traits and patterns of leaf shape development in two species of Ampelopsis, a genus in Vitaceae. The researchers looked at the differences in development of these species, examining how these differences may have influenced the divergent evolution observed in the mature plants.
Dr. Kang and her co-authors used epi-illumination light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy—two specialized techniques to view samples—in their research.
Though the two species compared ultimately exhibit different leaf shapes as mature plants (simple versus compound), the study shows that early developmental processes that control leaf shape are similar between the plants.
It also suggests that the most recent common evolutionary ancestor of the modern plants in Ampelopsis may have been a species with complex leaves, another type of leaf shape distinct from simple and compound leaves.
Be it in collaboration or on her own, research is ultimately what defines and drives Dr. Kang. “I love research,” she says. “I love asking questions and seeking out answers to those questions.”
She also values working with students.
“I like it when they can ask a question and then they find the answer or solution, or figure out a new method in which to get to that answer,” Dr. Kang says. “I really like it when they get excited about their own projects.”