PME’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program receives NSF grant

The Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago has received an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site.

Each summer for the next three years, the program will support 10 undergraduate students from across the United States as they perform research with one of 12 Pritzker Molecular Engineering faculty mentors.

Directing the program is Andrew Ferguson, principal investigator, associate professor of molecular engineering, and deputy dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion; Juan de Pablo, co-principal investigator and Liew Family Professor of Molecular Engineering; and Laura Rico-Beck, assistant dean of education and outreach.

“With our REU in molecular engineering program, we aim to immerse students in an authentic research environment and to mentor them within research groups and a STEM community of practice as active and self-directed researchers exposed to the intellectual rigor and excitement of scientific research,” Ferguson said.

The program aligns well with PME’s aim of bringing together experts in diverse academic disciplines to examine and develop holistic solutions to complex issues, Rico-Beck said.

“We see it as part of the PME mission to provide educational research opportunities to a diverse group of students who have a passion for discovery, innovation, and a career in STEM,” she said. “We believe that the best solutions are discovered when there is a diverse way of thinking, of doing, of experience, and of approaches. We also have a faculty that is very committed to developing students all the way from undergrads to postdoctoral scholars, and that development is very purposeful and integrated into the professional practices of their labs.”

Rico-Beck said that they’re actively recruiting students from colleges and universities across the United States—particularly students from colleges and universities that have limited research programs, two-year colleges without research facilities, and traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM.

“One of the NSF’s objectives for REU sites is to increase the diversity of engineers and scientists across the board,” she said. “To that end, we’re striving for broad representation of women, people of color, first-generation students, and other groups who have been historically underrepresented in science and engineering.”

So, what will the 10-week research experience look like?

When students apply for the program, they’re asked to choose one of three areas of focus corresponding to the research themes within PME: materials systems for sustainability and health, immunoengineering, or quantum engineering. Based on their responses, the team facilitates a match process between each of the 10 selected undergraduates and a faculty member and a graduate student or postdoctoral scholar who will serve as the students’ research supervisors.

“They’ll also have the whole cohort, the other students who are in other labs learning and running their own projects, coming together to talk about what’s working for them, what challenges they have, really creating a sense of community within the scientific endeavor, and also more broadly and socially, which is really important at this age as well,” Rico-Beck said.

After matching with a research lab, the students will work with their mentor to define a program of research to accomplish over the course of the 10-week program, and then they’ll jump into their academic research, Ferguson said.

“These are authentic research problems that we don’t know the answer to, so it’s not like a homework assignment,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to come out of it, but we think we have a good idea how to solve it. The mentor will pick a project that’s exciting and has no clear answer but is also viable to accomplish the unit of work within the 10 weeks, so the students don’t feel like just a cog in a machine. They actually have ownership of this project.”

Along with the scientific research, the students will participate in personal development activities, like workshops on scientific integrity, what it means to be a researcher, how to present findings, how to apply to graduate school, and even how to write a resume, Ferguson said.

They’ll also have an opportunity to visit Argonne National Laboratory, and give a presentation to the PME faculty, scientific community, and general public at the Museum of Science and Industry—albeit remotely, Rico-Beck said. This summer, because of COVID-19 restrictions, students will be participating from home instead of UChicago.

“We are going to be creative to connect everyone remotely, to integrate the students into our network of mentors, peers, and near-peers in graduate students who can support their development as future STEM professionals,” she said. “From the day-to-day interactions to the large-scale career development, we’re offering a number of supports and ways to grow for students who come to this program.”

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that promotes the progress of science by funding research at U.S. colleges and universities.

To learn more about the REU in molecular engineering program, visit the PME’s educational outreach page or email Laura Rico-Beck at