A summer of molecular engineering: PME’s 2021 REU program

This month, ten college students selected from across the country successfully completed the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering’s (PME) 2021 Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, representing the first full cohort to complete the program since it was awarded NSF funding.

The REU program, which runs from June to August, immerses undergraduate students in molecular-level research, allowing many to experience it for the first time. Over the course of ten weeks, students work directly with Pritzker Molecular Engineering faculty to better understand the field of molecular engineering and to develop a self-driven research project.

According to Laura Rico-Beck, the program’s manager and the assistant dean of education and outreach at PME, the REU program is invaluable for fostering the next generation of engineers.

“Gaining that experience, working in an authentic research environment is critical to students studying in these fields,” Rico-Beck said. “The REU is also an effective way to increase participation by members of traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM and first-generation college students.”

Unique to PME’s program is the level of freedom students have in selecting their research project, allowing them to pick from a wide range of cross-disciplinary topics represented at the school.

Portrait shot of Isha Hawkins
Isha Hawkins

For Isha Hawkins, a junior studying biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the REU bridged a subject she’d long been passionate about — bioengineering. Drawn to the field after her uncle passed away while awaiting a heart transplant, Hawkins now aspires to develop artificial organs for transplantation.

“I have this passion for science, so I began looking into interdisciplinary engineering, fields like biomedical engineering and molecular engineering,” Hawkins said. “That’s when I discovered the REU program at PME. I had no prior experience with engineering, but I thought this would be a great opportunity to immerse myself in the field.”

Hawkins worked with Lisa Volpatti, a postdoctoral fellow in the Hubbell Lab, to develop an imaging analysis protocol for studying plaque buildup on mice aorta.

Headshot of Oscar Rivera Jr.
Oscar Rivera Jr.

Oscar Rivera Jr., who studies chemical engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and also works in the school's mechanical engineering lab, said he was drawn to PME’s REU program because it merges both his areas of interest — mechanical and chemical engineering — in a way that he believes is essential to providing sustainable global energy options.

“I have a strong familial connection to El Salvador, so I'm deeply interested in alternative energy solutions that can be applied all over the world, solutions that help everyone,” Oscar said. “Designing more energy-dense batteries can enable a lot of advancement in smaller communities around El Salvador, like powering broadband networks that will connect schools and hospitals.”

Working in the Amanchuku Lab under the mentorship of PhD candidate Peiyuan Ma, Oscar designed novel fluoroether electrolyte structures through computational modeling, gaining new insights into high-energy-density batteries.

Portrait shot of Milla Vesanen
Milla Vesanen

Milla Vesanen, a junior from the University of Texas at San Antonio, entered the STEM arena with a clear mission to help people struggling with life-changing medical conditions. Vesanen, who developed a rare nervous system disorder in college, hopes to achieve that goal by researching and designing medical technology or pharmaceuticals — a path she believes is strengthened by her time with PME.

“After researching several REU’s, I found that PME’s best aligned with my interests in chemistry and molecular-level science,” Vesanen said. “I read through the different laboratory groups and I was intrigued by the research being conducted by the immunoengineering group. It matched up perfectly with my interest in neurology and autoimmune diseases.”

For her capstone project, Vesanen worked with graduate student Oliver Tang in the Ferguson Lab to build a machine learning model that screened compounds used in vaccine development, specifically concerning adjuvant design.

Also completing the program were Martin Ayala (University of Texas at San Antonio), Brenna Bartholomew (University of Virginia), Destini Coleman (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Alex Lindgren-Ruby (Seattle University), Jackie Shen (Amherst College), Jarrod Sitton (Dalton State College), and Natalie Tsang (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

“This group of students — each one — was extraordinarily resilient in the way they adapted to conditions in 2021 and maximized every opportunity,” Rico-Beck said. “I am excited to see how they continue to develop as researchers and make an impact on science and engineering innovations.”