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Summer Undergraduate Research Grows

Summer Research for Visiting Undergraduates Now Includes Engineering, Chemistry

The National Science Foundation’s program is growing in scope at UCR from plant cell biology to include engineering and chemistry this year.

(August 2, 2006)

Carrie Wang, a plant cell biology REU student.

Carrie Wang, a plant cell biology REU student.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — — Summer, a time for college students to kick back, maybe contemplate the benefits of taking a year off to trek across Europe? Not for 33 undergraduates from across the country who came to the University of California, Riverside to do scientific research this summer.

They’re spending 10 weeks doing laboratory research on topics such as the latest in bioanalytical measurements, to the genetic workings of plants, to nanofabrication for carbon nanotube-based nanoelectronic devices. The students live on campus, work in faculty laboratories under the direct supervision of a faculty member, receive a stipend to pay their personal expenses, and go on organized outings throughout Southern California. In some cases, they may publish their findings in a scientific journal.

UCR’s Center for Plant Cell Biology, long the sole site for the highly-competitive National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, has been joined this year by program sites at the Bourns College of Engineering and at the Department of Chemistry.

“For us to get two new REU sites this summer is really quite extraordinary,” said Christian Foster, director of undergraduate research at the Bourns College of Engineering. “The engineering directorate at NSF typically receives about 150 applications and will fund, maybe only five.”

Students chosen for the program must demonstrate a commitment to pursuing research careers.

“All the students in our program have professed a goal of graduate school and a desire to pursue a Ph.D. in a field of science,” said Cynthia Larive, professor of chemistry who directs the bioanalytical REU program. “The Bioanalytical Science REU program applies mostly to students who want to become chemists, physicists or chemical engineers and apply their skills to biological systems and measurement sciences.”

It seemed like the right fit for Jenelyn Ramos, an incoming junior at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, south of Fort Worth.

“I was looking for a research experience that combined chemistry with biological sciences and my professor told me about the REU program,” said the soft-spoken Ramos. “Last year I got some research experience building electronic devices at the University of Colorado and this year I’m learning how to analyze data — it’s very valuable experience.”

The engineering REU program, focused on the molecular scale of nanomaterials and nanodevices, has recruited students mostly from Southern California schools such as Glendale Community College, the University of Redlands, Riverside Community College, and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. But the plant cell biology program has students from Brigham Young University in Utah; St. Norbert College in DePere, Wis.; and the University of Colorado-Boulder.

For Carrie Wang, an incoming junior this fall at the University of Colorado, working in Professor Harley Smith’s lab isolating and describing proteins associated with control and flowering in the Arabidopsis plant, gives her a good idea whether she wants to pursue plant genetics.

“It’s something I’ll probably pursue,” she said. “I’ve learned so much about techniques that I had only read about in books and that now I’m getting a chance to use.”

Then there’s Abby Nitschke an incoming sophomore this fall at Loyola University in Chicago, who is working on the plant proteins that determine the shapes of plant cells. The youngest member of her group in the plant cell REU program, she’s not sure what she wants to specialize in but is just excited about getting into the laboratory.

“At first I was excited because I’ve never done anything in the research lab before I got here and, so, I was really thrilled and kind of scared too,” she said. “But now, because I’ve done more, I don’t feel like I’m a lot younger than the others.”

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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