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Arts & Sciences Scholars Earn Awards for Summer Research

Research program provides advantages in applying to grad school, clarity on career paths

June 1, 2017
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Five students were recently awarded 2017 Arts and & Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Awards to continue research pursuits this summer.

“This year we had some very difficult decisions to make,” says Karen Kashmanian Oates, Dean of Arts & Sciences. “So many of our students and faculty teams had outstanding projects to pursue over the summer. We are very thankful for the generosity of our advisory boards and alumni who created this opportunity for Arts & Sciences students.”

Karen Kashmanian Oates

The students, all rising juniors and seniors, were chosen from a field of 28 applicants. They come from various disciplines and will spend at least seven weeks working on research projects this summer. They are Bhon Bunnag ’19, physics (Izabela Stroe, advisor); Maria Elizabeth Daigle ’19, social science and policy studies (Erin Ottmar, advisor); Stephen Kosmo ’18, mathematical sciences (Stephan Sturm, advisor); Siddhant Pandey ’18, physics (L.R. Ram-Mohan, advisor); and Kunal K. Shah ’18, computer science (Krishna Venkatasubramanian, advisor).

Each student receives a $5,000 stipend through the Arts & Sciences Undergraduate Research Fellows Program, which was launched by the WPI Arts & Sciences Advisory Board and the WPI Life Sciences Advisory Board. Each applicant submitted a one-page statement about why they desired and deserved the award. They also composed a proposal about their current research or the research they would do with the funding.

The awards are especially meaningful, as there’s typically less opportunity for funded undergraduate summer research than there is for graduate research. Many undergraduate students are under pressure to find a job that pays well during the summer or to land an internship where they can gain some real-life work experience.

“This is the best of both worlds,” says Oates, as students can dive into research experiences and get paid for it. But the effects are even more far-reaching. Students who received the awards last year, she says, report that it gave them an added advantage in applying to grad school and gave them clarity about their own careers and what they want to pursue. The students receive full support from faculty who volunteer their efforts without compensation over the summer.

“It’s good to see the students engaged and involved in something that not many other schools do. The level of effort from these kids was really great.” -Ron Cortese

Physics professor Ramdas Ram-Mohan says advising the students during the summer brings huge rewards for the students, the professors, and the university as a whole. He recalls completing his freshmen year of college and wanting to spend more time researching through the summer. The lack of opportunity to do that left a lasting impression and now propels him to help WPI’s students who are so driven. “They are hungry for the opportunity for research,” he says.

In his lab, the summer researchers help make real progress. “I have 10 projects I want to push forward,” he says. “I would like to see them come to fruition. These students help my projects proceed forward and move to get publication and then get more funding.”

Computer science professor Krishna Venkatasubramanian says that undergraduate research is vital in giving students advanced skills and in moving important research forward. Shah is using his computer science major to research how to authenticate Google glasses with ballistocardiography, so that sensors will validate who is using the glasses based on cardiac processes. The project fascinated him and he says he would have initiated his own research project using wearable devices and sleep rhythms. Venkatasubramanian says that kind of curiosity is why undergrad research is so important. “The sooner students learn how to do research, the better,” he says. “The world is changing so fast, you have to keep on top of it to stay ahead.”

The advisory boards offer both guidance and funding to programs in the Arts & Sciences and Life Sciences at WPI. Since launching the fund to support these summer awards, the professionals on the boards have enjoyed meeting the students and hearing about the impact of their support. At last fall’s board meetings, the students who received 2016 awards gave presentations about their research and how the funding helped them. Many students talked about the research, but also touched on how important the experience is for their own paths, says Oates.

“The sooner students learn how to do research, the better. The world is changing so fast, you have to keep on top of it to stay ahead.” -Krishna Venkatasubramanian

Arts & Sciences Advisory Board member Ron Cortese, IT program director for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), says the board is especially enthusiastic about providing students with the funding to do research, and to polish their professional skills.

“It’s good to see the students engaged and involved in something that not many other schools do,” he says. And while the students spend the summer fine-tuning their research skills and uncovering new paths, they also gain valuable skills that will spill into other areas. “The level of effort from these kids was really great,” he says. For the students to learn how to make their presentations about their research engaging and vibrant, they draw on their own talents and spend a lot of time practicing how to tell the story of their research in addition to showing the results.

Oates says the students who applied for this summer program want to put in the extra effort to gain research experience. “These students represent those who are ready to—in addition to their project work—take their research to the next level,” she says. “The students are spending their out-of-classroom summer months to gain a competitive advantage and pursue their passion for more information. I wish we could offer this to all who applied.”

- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

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