For the third year in a row, PhD students earned funding awards for global scholarship opportunities. The PhD Global Research Experience Awards allow them to work in new environments, make connections for their own professional development, and often begin enduring collaborations between WPI and the hosting universities, according to dean of graduate studies Terri Camesano.
“The benefits to the students are lasting and the benefits to WPI last after they graduate,” says Camesano. Professors at WPI and the international labs can collaborate on writing proposals and papers. Those kinds of fruitful collaborations can also lead to opportunities for future students who may be tapped for additional research opportunities, she says. “Students are interested and aware of how important this is.” And they also appreciate the opportunity as many say the additional funding gives them a chance to research internationally, something normally out of their reach.
International Research with a Purpose
Students choose their research destinations carefully, often looking for a lab with specialized equipment or faculty. Most often they will have previously worked with a faculty member or on common research. They might have met at a conference and learned of the opportunities available. This kind of financial support for PhD students is crucial for them being able to move their research forward.
This year 10 students applied for the grants and half received them, says Camesano. Although all were well-qualified, funding limited the number of students who could receive support.
Paulo Carvalho '15 (BS RBE/BME) '16( MS RBE), works in the AIM Lab with Gregory Fischer where he designs MRI-compatible surgical robots. Carvalho will spend three months at the STEM-based ETH University in Zurich, Switzerland. “I am going to collaborate with ETH University in its research into rehabilitation (post-traumatic brain injury, stroke) by designing and constructing devices that the patient can interact with while functional MRI is being done of the person,” he says.
Carvalho chose ETH University strategically, noting it is an important group for research into MRI enabled technologies. “The collaboration will make it possible for me to extend the techniques I have developed here in MRI device compatibility into the domain of rehabilitation and functional MRI,” he says. “At WPI our work focuses on surgical devices and real-time temperature mapping."
Jaya Cromwell will travel to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom to continue her studies on the degradation of organic light-emitting devices (OLEDs). She chose Cambridge because Provost Wole Soboyejo, her advisor, knew of an appropriate host group with similar research interests.
Cromwell knows the research will move hers forward. “I can have access to additional equipment and further collaboration,” she says. “The expertise gained can benefit research at WPI.” And while the research benefits are clear, Cromwell says the perspective of a foreign experience is valuable. “Carrying out research at universities abroad would allow students access to additional resources and cultural perspectives and to see the impact of research worldwide,” she says.
Bringing a Global Awareness to Research
Camesano agrees that the research is enhanced by the new perspective. “They will see the culture of labs in all different places, and they have to adapt to that,” she says. “They will need to self-advocate to get what they want and to overcome challenges.” Carvalho sees the balance of research and new connections. “I believe networking will come naturally by working at the other location. This will, hopefully, open doors for continued collaboration between the institutions, which leads to a positive symbiotic relationship between WPI and one of Europe's most prestigious higher education institutions,” he says.
Associate professor of chemical engineering Mike Timko has advised several students going abroad for PhD research and says the way the work is targeted is important. “A student can use the funding to access resources and techniques anywhere in the world that are not available at WPI,” he says. “Or, the funding can serve to give the student a broader perspective on his or her chosen field.”
This summer, Avery Brown, one of Timko’s students will travel to Germany to work with a well-developed team working in green chemistry. “I expect his work in Germany to result in one or more published articles,” says Timko. “In turn, these articles will serve as a basis for future joint proposal writing between both groups. Funded proposals will provide opportunities to bring more excellent students to WPI, to train and help guide them in their studies to become engineering researchers.”
Once the students are back on campus in the fall, they will continue the research relationships. When it comes time to look for a job, their time abroad is an advantage in job interviews.
The goal is getting the best research experience, says Camesano, but the benefits do extend further. “In a job market that is increasingly competitive and global," says Timko, "international experiences can serve to differentiate the student from the pack.”
- by Julia Quinn-Szcesuil