It’s another good year for Georgia College, in terms of students winning REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) through the National Science Foundation (NSF). Seven biology, physics and mathematics students were selected to do a wide-range of different research in the United States and abroad.
About 25 to 30 percent of applicants are successful in getting a REU, said Dr. Kenneth McGill, chair of chemistry, physics and astronomy. McGill’s department nearly doubled the number of students getting REUs – from three last year to five. Every student who got REUs did previous research with Georgia College faculty.
“That’s something to brag about,” said Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, assistant professor of physics. “Getting accepted to these programs definitely shows how competitive and well-prepared our students are. As faculty, we have a big role to play in promoting these opportunities to our students and guiding them through the process with the help of our Career Center.”
REUs give students opportunities to gain laboratory skills, develop good work ethics and use state-of-the-art equipment. They learn research techniques with professors, graduate and post-doctorate students at other universities. This broadens their perspective, helping them see what graduate research is like and giving them network-building opportunities. Students also “take ownership” of their projects and acquire leadership skills, Mahabaduge said.
He teamed up with a student for a REU last summer at the University of Nebraska. Nowsherwan Sultan of Pakistan was not thinking of going to graduate school before that experience. Now, the physics senior wants to get a masters and work as a researcher. When REU students return, Mahabaduge said he sees new confidence and leadership potential in them.
Robert Blumenthal, chair of mathematics, called REUs a “terrific opportunity” for students to engage and collaborate with peers and faculty experts. Learning math is only “one side of the coin,” he said.
“The other and more important side is exploring mathematics, learning how to formulate meaningful questions and devising methods for attacking those questions,” Blumenthal said.
“This is a very creative process, one which is not unlike the creative process in any of the fine arts,” he said. “That our students are selected for these REU experiences speaks very well for Georgia College and for the way in which we are able to engender in our students a love of learning and a passion for exploration.”
NSF pays students a stipend, as well as all travel and lodging costs. REUs generally last eight to 10 weeks from May or June to August.
Senior Cain Alexander Gantt of Johns Creek is double majoring in mathematics and physics with a minor in computer science. Last year, he did work on “supercomputer clusters” for a REU at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. This year, Gantt obtained another REU – this time in the field of “image reconstruction” at Salisbury University in Maryland.
Gantt participated in Dr. Ken McGill’s acoustic flow meter research, which helped him land this opportunity. Summer research could yield improvements in medical imaging and reduce future costs. It could add to “innovation cycles” in the industry, Gantt said, so institutions can upgrade medical equipment more often.
The REU will also help narrow Gantt’s focus on what to study in graduate school.
“A large portion of technical and programming skills I have learned during previous research will apply to the project I’ll work on this summer,” he said. “I hope to gain a better understanding of the field of signal processing as a whole, and how parallel computing can fit into a wide variety of tasks. I also hope to make new friends through the program and to learn more about Maryland and the surrounding area.”
Junior biology major Billie Mills of Moultrie will do a REU in molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago. It was her top choice. Mills will work in Dr. Illaria Rebay’s laboratory, studying “signal transduction in drosophila development.” Developmental pathways in the fruit fly are almost identical to animals and humans, she said.
“As a first-generation college student and a woman in the sciences, I am incredibly honored to have been selected for this REU. However, I know it will also present many challenges,” Mills said.
She turned down two other REUs – at Clemson University and Cornell University – to do the Chicago program. Mills feels this research is important for the future of medicine. As pharmaceuticals become more genetically-based, she said, it’s important to understand genetics and the cellular basis of human diseases.
Mills hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular or cellular biology. At Georgia College, she participated in Dr. Ellen France’s research on “vesicular trafficking of temperature-sensitive S. Cerevisiae mutant.”
“As a young, budding scientist,” she said, “I am incredibly excited to enter into science at such an amazing time period and pursue research as a real job – where experiments continue day after day, even on weekends.”
Senior Spencer Shortt of Decatur, who has double majors in mathematics and physics, was accepted into the University of Florida’s International REU in gravitational physics at Birmingham, England. He will conduct research on “binary black hole formation and evolution” at the University of Birmingham.
At Georgia College, Shortt participated in two projects: Dr. Donovan Domingue’s merging galaxy and star formation research and Dr. Mahabaduge’s solar panel research on golf carts.
At the beginning and end of his REU, Shortt will spend a few days in Germany meeting other international REU students and giving presentations on his research. In England, he’ll work with Dr. Ilya Mandel, who uses a population code to theorize how black holes evolve and why gravitation waves exist in space.
“Gravitation waves are produced from merging black holes,” Shortt said. “I will be exploring a channel of binary evolution called ‘chemically homogeneous evolution.’ This research is important because, up until a few years ago, humanity has only been able to learn about astronomy from the electromagnetic spectrum. Now, for the first time in history, people are using gravitational waves to learn about the universe.”
“I expect to gain a ton of experience in theoretical astrophysics research,” he said, “which is an area I’m considering for graduate school.”
Sophomore biology major Kariann Lamon of Moultrie was chosen to be one of 10 students for a REU on corals at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
The Academy is one of the premier museums and research institutions in the world with more than 100 research scientists. Lamon will work with Dr. Gary Williams, studying the diversity and evolution of Western Pacific corals.
“I was surprised to receive this opportunity, considering the prestige of research done at the California Academy of Sciences,” Lamon said. “I believe there will be difficulty in getting adjusted to a new lab environment. But my feelings of excitement override any nervousness that I feel about stepping into the unknown.”
At Georgia College, Lamon did optical molecular research on beetles in Dr. Nathan Lord’s entomology lab. She recently presented research at Cambridge University in Britain. She expects to expand on her molecular knowledge this summer and learn new research techniques.
“Corals have especially important roles in our oceans. They form coral reefs that are habitats for many marine organisms,” Lamon said. “Determining the relationships between corals will provide insight on how their incredible biodiversity has risen.”
Junior James Fortwengler of Milton is double majoring in chemistry and math. He has accepted a REU on nano-electrochemistry at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
He’s excited to see whether he likes research or not. If he does, Fortwengler will pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. If not, he may go to medical school.
“I’m really hoping to gain a love for researching or even, maybe, a hatred,” he said. “I’m hoping this experience will help me decide what I want to do with my life past undergraduate.”
Summer research will involve seeing how various particles interact. Nano-electrochemistry research could play a “huge role” in the future by helping society make better and longer-lasting batteries.
Fortwengler thinks he was chosen for the REU, “because of the great set-up Georgia College offers.” He was involved with Dr. Catrena Lisse’s chemistry research group. The Career Center helped him write a professional-looking resume. Plus, the relationships he built with professors resulted in strong recommendation letters.
“I’m a little nervous, of course. But I’m sure once I get my feet wet, I’ll be fine. It’s going to be difficult, because a lot of the research has to do with advanced physics, math and chemistry,” Fortwengler said.
“Research as a whole is a very bittersweet process with many failures,” he said. “Who knows how it’ll go, but I’m very excited to find out!”
Senior physics major Aidan Jeffrey Burleson of Fayetteville will be doing a REU in quantum computing at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.
The best part about this research is “the combination of the abstract physics in quantum mechanics and real-world applications of computers,” Burleson said. He believes his academic record, personal drive and previous acoustic research with Dr. McGill helped him stand out as an applicant.
“I am very grateful to have this opportunity to do more-advanced research, while still working on my undergrad,” Burleson said. “I am slightly nervous that the content will be difficult to grasp at first, since I’ve never done this type of research before, and because it is one of the newer fields in physics.”
“However,” he said, “I feel confident that I will be able to adapt and quickly get through the learning curve.’
Summer research will help the progression of quantum or high-speed computers and the ability to use computers for advanced problem solving, Burleson said. It’ll also help him prepare for the next stage of his education – pursuing a Ph.D. in physics.
Junior physics major Josh Ballard-Myer of Athens has accepted a REU to study chemical reactions of “Belousov-Zhabotinsky” (BZ) waves at the College of Wooster in Ohio.
Ballard-Myer learned of this opportunity when a Wooster professor spoke at Georgia College. He talked to the professor afterwards. Establishing this relationship was a key factor in getting accepted, he said. Ballard-Myer’s solar research experience in Dr. Mahabaduge’s lab also helped.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “It’s going to be 40 hours a week of research, which will be hard, but it will also prepare me for what a career in physics is like.”
B-Z reactions “are important, because they are oscillating from one state to another, meaning they don’t attempt to reach equilibrium – an idea that was unbelievable when it was first discovered,” Ballard-Myer said.
He will spend the first few weeks of the REU reading background information to be ready for experimental trials. Then, Ballard-Myer hopes to move fluid through a capillary machine at a speed that will result in a “standing wave.” B-Z reactions could be used to model the electrical path in brains, he said, possibly explaining why people get migraines.
“I think it will be a great experience in my research field,” said Ballard-Myer, who hopes to get a masters in math or physics. “Depending on how much I enjoy it, it will influence my career path.”