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Summer research program encourages students in STEM fields

| Sherry Lau

Seven University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students are spending their summer in the Materials Science Center conducting research with faculty as part of a grant sponsored by the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP), an organization that seeks to address retention and persistence of underrepresented minorities in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

"The real goal of the ten-week summer research program is to increase the number of graduates in the STEM fields," said Dr. Doug Dunham, director of the Materials Science Center and creator of the research program. "Since we have such a great undergraduate research program at UW-Eau Claire, it's a huge opportunity to bring underrepresented minority students into research early on in their careers with the goal of those students becoming graduates with a STEM degree."

Dunham said he thinks it's important for students to have research opportunities early in their career, which is why the program is initially open to students between their freshman and sophomore years at UW-Eau Claire.

"Typically, if you're a first-year science major, you spend a lot of time taking the general math, chemistry and physics courses for background and never get to do actual science," Dunham said. "I think what happens sometimes is that students don't get to see what science is really like and how fun it is to be able to use all the instrumentation and equipment here, so they don't always continue on and get a degree. The idea is to get them excited about science early and hopefully that hooks them into the STEM fields."

At the beginning of the program, students are given an introduction to what the program is, guidelines for the course and safety training for working in the lab, and then they spend most of the time working with their faculty mentors conducting research, Dunham said.

"We supplement that with some other programs to provide professional development as well," Dunham said. "The idea is, if they graduate with a STEM degree, we want them to be professionally ready for a career either in graduate school or industry. We have had faculty talk about what graduate school is like and what opportunities it can provide, as well as what working in the industry is like and what types of careers are possible."

The students also have a chance to improve their presentation skills by discussing and presenting their research at various conferences. From July 22-23 two students presented research at the Wisconsin Science and Technology Symposium held at UWisconsin-Superior, and in November all of the students will present their research at the WiscAMP conference held in Madison.

Dr. Jennifer Dahl, an assistant professor in the Materials Science Center, said two of her students were qualified to participate in the program this year, giving them the opportunity for a more well-rounded research experience in terms of additional conference travel and professional preparation for their careers after they graduate.

"Individually, they get more opportunities to share their science with the public through poster presentations, professional talks and conference travel, so that really motivates the students to get results and do an excellent job in their research," Dahl said. "We also have a very nice community of students working with each other. While the students are working individually on their own unique projects, together they're really learning about the process of carrying out science and having peer discussions that are incredibly valuable."

The program is in its second year and includes three returning students from last year who serve as mentors for the new students.

Tayo Sanders, a sophomore materials science major from Kimberly, is one of the returning students serving as a mentor this summer.

"This program had a really good impact on my research experience last year and I was really able to see what research was like," Sanders said. "Instead of trying to squeeze in hours during the school year, I was able to spend a whole summer, 40 hours a week, experiencing research and developing skills I didn't even know that I needed; skills that I would never develop in the classroom. To be able to mentor and guide other students and help them through any troubles or questions they have was something that really appealed to me. I would love to be a mentor again next summer. The experience has been great."

Sanders' research project, which he is doing collaboratively with Dahl, involves studying the formation of soft gold nanoparticle networks as a component of a low-cost, high-efficiency photovoltaic material, essentially an alternative solar energy source.

Sanders said having the opportunity to participate in this program and conduct research at UW-Eau Claire has meant so much to him.

"I didn't know there were these types of opportunities at UW-Eau Claire," Sanders said. "I originally came here as a biochemistry and pre-med student because I knew UW-Eau Claire had a good reputation for sending pre-med students to medical school, but then I found out about the great chemistry and materials science programs and all of the opportunities for research, and decided to change my major to materials science. I am also a Blugold Fellow, which has helped give me even more research opportunities. I have been very thankful for the personal attention I have received at UW-Eau Claire. I don't think I would have gotten the same opportunities at another school."

Sanders said the most rewarding part of this experience has been the close relationship he has developed with Dahl.

"I work closely with Dr. Dahl and feel like I can go to her with anything," Sanders said. "In college, to be able to have a professor that you also consider a friend has been awesome. It's been great being able to have a close relationship with someone who has gone through the entire process of getting a Ph.D. and who knows so much and has so much to offer. Being able to learn from her experiences has been fantastic."

After graduation, Sanders said he hopes to go to graduate school and become a professor based on his experience at UW-Eau Claire.

"I would love to be able to emulate the experience I had here at UW-Eau Claire with future students," Sanders said. "It would be great to be able to inspire a group of young researchers just as Dr. Dahl inspired me."

Michelle Purdun, a freshman biology student from Antigo, is in her first year in the summer research program. She said she thought it was a great opportunity to "dip her foot into research."

"I knew I wanted to conduct research somehow, but I didn't know exactly how to get into it, so this was the perfect opportunity," Purdun said. "Even though it's not the exact area I want to study, I am getting great experience in the lab."

Purdun is researching methanobactin and how it interacts with gold nanoparticles.

"Basically we take gold in the solution form and combine it with methanobactin, which is a molecule created from a methanotroph, or bacteria that eats methane," Purdun said. "We put those together and observe how it reacts with the gold. We do know that methanobactin reacts with copper. Now we are researching how it reacts with other metals."


Purdun is working closely with Dr. Marc McEllistrem, co-director of the Materials Science Center and an associate professor of chemistry at UW-Eau Claire, on her research.

"Dr. McEllistrem has been really great," Purdun said. "He makes the whole research process a lot easier to comprehend and a lot less scary than I thought it would be. I just finished my freshman year and felt a little intimidated, but he makes you feel like anybody can conduct research and it's something you can easily embrace. I have become friends with the other people in the program and we all talk about our research together. It's like a little family. The older students have definitely been helpful as mentors."

Purdun said she would definitely recommend this program to other students and hopes to participate in it again next summer.

"You get to connect with so many different professors in many different departments," Purdun said. "You get to know them personally, their experiences and how they came to be where they are. I've gotten close with the materials science faculty and have become more acquainted with the chemistry and biology professors, who have all given me advice on how to get into the area of research I'm interested in, which is animal behavior. You also get experience outside of the classroom beyond just the basic labs and course work. I've discovered more about what I want to do in the future and am looking into graduate schools."

Dunham said being in the summer research program will help open doors for the students.

"Participating in this program provides so many opportunities after graduation," Dunham said. "If they're thinking about graduate school, there are alliances for minority participation programs across the country so they will have access to those types of programs after they graduate from UW-Eau Claire. It's a great way to enhance their skills and become more competitive."

Getting to know students from other disciplines has been a great bonus of the program, Dunham said.

"I've gotten to know students I otherwise wouldn't have met, including students from computer science, who wouldn't necessarily come through the materials science doors," Dunham said. "But because of this program, which includes the broader STEM fields, I've had that opportunity. It's amazing how talented these groups of students are, and sometimes I don't think they even realize it, but hopefully after this program ends, they will."

Dahl said she has been amazed at the growth her students have shown throughout the program.

"Watching my students grow and become very independent as new scientists has been very rewarding," Dahl said. "When they started out, they needed to be trained in their projects and checked in with me constantly, as expected. Now, those discussions are few and far between. They're suggesting to me what the next steps should be in the science and it's really evolved into a collaboration. It's very easy for me to envision a future career for these individuals."

For more information on the summer research program, contact Dr. Doug Dunham at