SDNI-REU at UC San Diego: Putting the Experience in REU

By Laura Santos and Beto Vasquez

As an educational research center, UC San Diego’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence, better known as CREATE, is committed to increasing equitable educational opportunities for students and educators alike. At CREATE, we pride ourselves in the work we do with students, staff and faculty across the K-20 spectrum. Although we specialize in program and initiative development and grant writing to support areas of literacy, math and science, we also foster a culture of collaboration with faculty and community members to help them meet their grant and research goals. The San Diego Nanotechnology Infrastructure (SDNI) Research Experience for Undergraduates is one example of such collaborations. Research experience for undergraduates (REUs) are immersive programs in which universities host students to conduct research with faculty members typically during the course of the summer. Coupling our Center’s comprehensive understanding of student needs with the technical expertise of a science research program, the SDNI-REU is providing a well-rounded, rich experience for this year’s nine program participants.

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 3.25.17 PM

SDNI at UC San Diego is one of 16 national research sites of the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI),a network dedicated to increasing access and engagement of nanoscale research to students, academic and industry partners as well as the general public.  Research underway at  NNCI site facilities include studies on electronics, materials, biomedicine, energy, geosciences, environmental sciences, consumer products, and many more.

This year’s SDNI-REU cohort is an intergenerational group of students from diverse backgrounds who currently attend both two- and four-year colleges. “Positive interactions between the two-year and four-year students, especially during a 10-week summer research program, are to be celebrated,” said Beto Vasquez, K-14 academic preparation specialist at CREATE and Program Coordinator for the SDNI-REU program. “After all, it is not uncommon for community college transfer students to feel alienated when transferring to four-year institutions. We’ve created a rich, inclusive learning experience at UC San Diego this summer to inspire all students in our program.”Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 3.25.32 PM

Community college is a major avenue for underrepresented minorities (URM) to access universities. Transfer student acclimation can be stymied by a number of challenges, including differences among higher education institutions (college/university size location; semester vs. quarter schedules academic expectations); the enrollment/matriculation process (admissions, financial aid, registration); and academic advising.  (Wetzel & Debure, 2018). Additionally, personal and cultural expectations or challenges (such as first generation, minority, or low socio-economic status) may create barriers that can impact student performance and decrease students’ overall sense of belonging and validation (Hurtado et al., 1996).

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 3.25.44 PMAlthough this year’s REU participants have a variety of life experiences and stories that are unique, it is their desire to immerse themselves in the program that connects them. They are an extraordinary group of students with a tremendous aptitude and passion for the sciences; some students develop Smart Home technology, Arduino designs, 3D printing, and computer programming in their spare time! However, not all journeys have been the same. While some have worked hard to continue their family legacies, others have sacrificed to become the first in their families to challenge expectations. Flavia DePlachett, a community college student from Mesa College, immigrated from Brazil five years ago. She has learned the importance of balancing personal, academic and professional goals while simultaneously learning to acclimate into American culture and language. Edgard Parra, a student from City College, who previously ran a successful computer programming business, has sacrificed time away from his newly born son in order to “be a role model for [his] son” and complement his experience with a formal education.  

Some of these students enrolled into higher education at an older age, realizing that they wanted a career that was more purposeful, one where they can create a positive impact in the world and in turn be a role model to their families and communities. Collectively, this cohort of seven men and two women, have undergone many obstacles to get this far, their resilience and passion are evident in their work.

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 3.25.54 PMThe UC San Diego SDNI-REU program centers on participants helping conduct research with faculty members from the Jacobs School of Engineering: Drs. David Fenning, Prabhakar Bandaru, Tina Ng, Jesse Jokerst, Shaochen Chen, Ping Liu, Yu-Hwa Lo, Renkun Chen and Darren Lipomi.These faculty members come from the Departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Nanoengineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering.
“In an effort to provide students with a well-rounded experience to foster additional growth, we added several elements to the SDNI-REU program to support students’ personal, academic and professional development,” Vasquez said. “These additions have helped the REU program thrive!”

This year, weekly meetings and activities were incorporated into the program to encourage a team-building culture and to create a space where participants can support one another. As a result, a camaraderie has developed quickly among students. During these meetings, students have the opportunity to express their praise and/or voice their concerns about their lab, the program and any personal issues affecting their work/school/life balance. Students are encouraged to openly help each other with any issues they encounter.Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 3.26.09 PM

Additionally, to promote confidence and improve public speaking skills, each student was asked to present to the group on a topic of strength for him/her. Students then received constructive feedback from the group on their presentation skills. Presentation topics to-date have included Python coding, Arduino technology, and space travel. These weekly meetings validate students, helping to develop group rapport and support.

CREATE’s ability to develop cross-campus relationships has helped facilitate the SDNI-REU program’s success. Thanks to the Summer Training Academy for Research Success (STARS) program, SDNI-REU students also participated in a GRE preparation course and mingled at social events alongside other UC San Diego on-campus REU program students. Participants also attended Qualcomm Institute’s Summer Science Seminars to broaden their knowledge through seminars with topics that ranged from ethics and inclusivity in science to mastering presentation skills., CREATE also has connected the SDNI-REU program with UC San Diego’s Geisel Library Services. Students attended informational workshops and learned how to maximize the myriad of available library and campus research tools and resources. “This program provides structure and guidance. It’s not someone telling you to go through this door but someone showing you that there are multiple doors you can go through. It is supportive. It’s knowing that there’s someone there that has your best interest in mind”, said Oscar Correa, another of our students.

Additionally, students learned invaluable skills beneficial at any academic or professional level.

“A lot of young researchers aren’t aware of some of the soft skills they need to work in a laboratory environment with other people,” said Dr. Charles Dhong, the postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Nanoengineering Lipomi Lab. “I’m glad the SDNI-REU program is) offering a basic training in e-mail etiquette, how to work with a supervisor and other fundamental communication skills that’ll help a researcher in [his/her] first laboratory position. These skills are valuable for any researcher, and as a supervisor, it makes it much easier to get these new researchers up-to-speed.”

CREATE staff involvement has additionally boosted the REU experience through
complementing the technical aspects of an REU with a personable, student-centered approach reinforce participant morale and confidence (which can waiver at times), REU students were encouraged to give back. They participated on panels to share their academic and personal experiences with visiting high school students from local Upward Bound TRiO programs, a federally funded secondary school program committed to bolstering URM future participation in higher education. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 3.26.20 PM

Additionally, REU students also had the opportunity to prepare a personal statement for future graduate, transfer school and scholarship applications. CREATE’s Minh Mai, Digital Communications Specialist, who leads this effort, provided personal assistance to students for crafting their statements through workshops and one-on-one mentoring.

CREATE’s Vasquez and Laura Santos, Program Support Staff, are the driving force behind this year’s program; providing guidance, personal support and close oversight of program logistics, communications, and scheduling.  
Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 3.26.29 PM
“The success of UC San Diego’s SDNI-REU program is a testament to the value of cross-campus collaboration,” Vasquez said, “Partnerships like the one between CREATE and SDNI Director Dr. Yu-Hwa Lo have resulted in a rich, research-driven and simultaneously student-centered program.” Individuals like Professor Yu-Hwa Lo, Director of SDNI and nanoengineering faculty, make cultivating such programs possible.

For more information about the SDNI REU program or the Research Experience for Teachers (RET), contact Beto Vasquez.
Wetzel L, Debure K. The Role of Faculty in Fostering STEM Transfer Student Success. Journal Of College Science Teaching [serial online]. March 2018;47(4):42-46. Available from: Academic Search Index, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 20, 2018

Hurtado, Sylvia, et al. “Latino Student Transition to College: Assessing Difficulties and Factors in Successful College Adjustment.” Research in Higher Education, vol. 37, no. 2, 1996, pp. 135–157., doi:10.1007/bf01730113.