What’s an REU?
The National Science Foundation funds Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) at colleges across the country. While participating in an REU, you are essentially a full time graduate student for 10-12 weeks during the summer. Participants receive a stipend and complete their own research project alongside professors and grad students.
Two members of the SWE executive board participated in REUs last summer and wanted to share their experiences with you!
Tell me about yourself!
Fiona O’Dowd: I’m a junior in Materials Science & Engineering, and am currently one of the Outreach Co-Directors for SWE. Last summer, I participated in the REU program Polymer Innovation for a Sustainable Future at the University of Southern Mississippi in their School of Polymer Science and Engineering.
Megan Lim: Hello! I am a sophomore in Chemical Engineering and a professional chair for SWE. I spent the summer after my freshman year in a Security Printing and Anti-Counterfeiting Technology program at South Dakota State University in an analytical chemistry lab.
How did you learn about this opportunity?
FO: I first learned about it from the MSE department seminar in the fall, and was encouraged more by the professor I was doing research with last year.
ML: I was job hunting for a summer experience and stumbled upon the opportunity.
What did the application process consist of?
FO: Most of the schools I looked at required 2-4 short essays (~250 words) about our relevant experiences and why we wanted to take part in the specific REUs. We also had to send two letters of recommendation along with our transcripts.
ML: One tip would be to thoroughly research what past REU and/or grad students working under that lab have done before to make your personal essay stand out. Don’t be afraid if you think you have no experience – apply anyway if it interests you.
Tell me about your project!
FO: I studied a fabrication method for nanocapsules made from highly controlled synthetic polymers. They have future applications in specialized drug delivery, such as when treating cancer, or in medical imaging.
ML: I developed a new method to create chemical fingerprints for aspirin brands by altering a gas-chromatography mass-spectrometry preparation method. Ideally, we can more easily detect counterfeit drugs in a cost-effective method that will not require expensive machinery or extensive knowledge.
What was your social life like during the summer on a new college campus?
FO: It was really fun! I was in a part of the country I’d never been before, which was a cool experience. I spent my weekends going to Alabama and Florida beaches, spending time with other REUs and current grad students at local places, eating amazing Gulf coast seafood, and exploring Hattiesburg and New Orleans!
ML: I had never been to South Dakota before, and believe it or not it is more interesting than one might assume. I was able to visit Mt. Rushmore and climb the Crazy Horse Memorial (which you can only do on 2 days of the year!) with my lab group, attend a conference in Pierre, spend a few days in Sioux Falls, and visit downtown Minneapolis along with an amusement park there. Because all the REUs lived on the floor, it was convenient to hitch a ride to the supermarket and insightful to hear about the different projects we were all doing.
Was being on a new campus surrounded by new people stressful at all?
FO: Not for me personally. I really like being in new environments, and I kept busy the whole time. There was a large support network of the grad students in the department who helped us find things to do and were able to answer any questions we needed.
ML: It was a bit daunting at first, but like Fiona said, I was pretty busy between lab work and cooking on my own. As we all lived together, it was pretty easy to find friends from disparate universities. Also intimidating was working with a bunch of professors and grad students on a closer level, but it ultimately turned into a productive learning environment.
How was your housing situation handled?
FO: All of the REUs lived on the same floor of a dorm, which was reserved and paid for by the program. We filled out a survey before arrival that paired us with a roommate. It was great to be in an environment with only other REUs.
ML: I actually got a single suite-style room in their renovated residence hall, but most other students had roommates who were in the same lab as they were. The reservations and cost were also taken care of by the program.
Would you recommend REU for students who are unsure if they want to pursue grad school?
FO: YES!! My REU experience really solidified my decision that I want to pursue my PhD. For others, it could help you decide that you really don’t want to go to grad school. A 12 week summer program is a much smaller commitment than 6 years of grad school.
ML: Yes! Unlike Fiona, while I had a great experience working in the lab, I decidedly do not want to go to grad school after talking to the current grad students both in South Dakota and Purdue. I would say an REU is a low-risk way to find out what it is like doing research full-time, as opposed to doing it on campus while taking classes.
Why did you choose your program?
FO: All of the REUs I applied to had a sustainability focus, which really helped to narrow down my search for schools. I’m interested in the polymers/composites area of materials engineering, and USM is one of the top polymer schools in the country, so that was a major deciding factor for me.
ML: At the time being, I thought I wanted to do something medical-related career wise. I applied to five different programs and only got accepted into one, so I went with that route.
Why did you apply to REUs?
FO: I didn’t get in internship during IR, and it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me! Over winter break, I decided I wanted to do research over the summer instead of continuing to look for an internship opportunity. I opted to do an REU over SURF or any other program at Purdue because I wanted to learn more about Materials Engineering at other universities and wanted a change of scenery. Also, my advisor told me to.
ML: I was looking for some sort of industrial or research internship. The nice thing about REUs is that they often have a late application due date, so I applied for both industry internships and REUs simultaneously. The pay wasn’t half bad either, considering most pay for room, food stipends, and you get a salary stipend. Some will also pay for travel.
What is your favorite memory from your REU?
FO: An undergrad who was doing research at USM and was from Hattiesburg was shocked to hear none of the REUs had ever been to a crawfish boil. She and her family threw a HUGE crawfish boil for a lot of people in the department, which is when you cook crawfish, potatoes, corn, and an unreal amount of spices in a HUGE pot over a fire outside. After it cooks, you dump all the food on a paper-covered table to share. It was the most fun I’ve ever had eating and was an experience I couldn’t have had anywhere else in the country.
ML: I really enjoyed hiking up the Crazy Horse Memorial because it was a unique experience and allowed me to bond with my lab group. I was slightly embarrassed when my decidedly older mentor half jogged the 5 mile uphill hike as I struggled along, but in the end we all made it. Another fun event was going to ValleyFair Amusement Park with my lab group.
What advice would you give to someone interested in REU?
FO: Apply to a bunch of them! They are pretty competitive to get into, and they’re all looking for something else. Some want people with significant research experience, some want students with no experience, and most want a mix. The more you apply to, the better your chances. Plus, the essay questions are all pretty similar so once you write a couple you can kind of Frankenstein them together with pretty minimal effort.
ML: What Fiona said! Also, consider applying to lesser-known universities as that may increase your chances as well.
What kind of things did you do at the school besides research?
FO: For the first few weeks, we had class every morning where we were essentially given a super-condensed crash course in polymer science. Throughout the summer, we gave oral and poster presentations on our work to the rest of the department. We also organized and volunteered at two polymer science outreach events for local kids attending camps at USM.
ML: We would have weekly seminars from industry experts on counterfeiting, and we also had weekly lab lunches. At the end of the summer, we presented our research along with all the other REU students in the state of South Dakota.
How do I apply??
Go to the NSF website, and start searching!