Aspiring Researchers Gain Lab Experience, Portfolios & More at Georgia Tech’s SURE Program

PhenomenalMAG Staff  |  Step Into STEM

The Center for Engineering Education and Diversity (CEED) at Georgia Tech has been hosting top undergraduates from throughout the country for a 10-week summer research program for the past 30 years.

The program's goal is to increase the number of underrepresented students, including women, who go on to pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM fields.

Forty-four juniors and seniors from throughout the country participated in this year's Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE). This cohort worked in labs across all eight of the College's Schools and Departments, since this event took part in person for the first time since 2019.

Experience comes in many forms; building a research portfolio is only one. In addition to emphasizing the value of incorporating inclusion and diversity principles into research, SURE also offers professional development and social opportunities.

The majority of students, including those from other prestigious research universities, came from outside the state. First-generation college students made up nearly half of the cohort. Black and Hispanic/Latinx aspiring researchers made up the bulk of the group.

SURE programs are offered by several colleges. One of the oldest summer programs in the country, Georgia Tech's dates back to 1992. The top aim is to entice students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue Georgia Tech for graduate study. The SURE program at Georgia Tech aims to diversify the STEM fields, according to Lakeita Servance, who oversees the initiative.

The Research

Elif Kilic is a fifth-year student in the school of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University through the Dual Degree program (CEE). When she worked in a research lab at the University of Florida during high school to identify heavy metal contamination in water, she developed an interest in science.

The Konstantinidis lab focuses on the intersection of microbial ecology with engineering and computational biology, while Kilic's particular study focuses on the degradation of plastics into the environment.

Kilic stated, "I applied to the SURE program to continue my research on plastic degradation into the environment in the Konstantinidis Lab, which would ultimately aid neglected people. "

"The SURE program consistently attracts excellent talent. Richard Neu, a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering who specializes on forecasting the fatigue behavior of diverse materials, said summer students who have previously worked in his lab have always had a big impact on our research.

According to Ellen Mazumdar, an assistant professor at the Woodruff School, "during the pandemic, it has been more challenging for students to find hands-on research experience." "We intend to excite the students about the experience of articulating scientific questions with peers in the lab environment now that the SURE program is in-person again."

Beyond a Simple Research Program

The SURE program provides students with a wealth of social and professional development opportunities in addition to the laboratories. Faculty from across campus were invited to participate in the SURE Weekly Seminar Series to talk about their work, academic careers, and how they overcame obstacles to become successful in their fields.

Courtney Young, a computer engineering major at the University of Nebraska – Omaha who collaborated with Xiaming Huo, the A. Russell Chandler III Professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, said, "I was interested in Georgia Tech because of the diversity in the SURE program."

Every Friday, SURE held a "Brown Bag Session, "inviting members of the local business community to speak to kids about the duties of their jobs and to teach them about essential job skills. Along with partaking in practical activities and networking, students also visited businesses including The Home Depot and T3 Labs.

The multilayered mentoring infrastructure of Tech's SURE program plays a significant role in ensuring student success. Each student has a graduate mentor who works with them directly in the lab, a social mentor who helps them integrate into the Georgia Tech campus and Atlanta community, and general program support, including graduate coordinators.

Elaida Dimwamwa, the program's main graduate coordinator, noted that while the SURE program "mostly focuses on the research, we also try and think about what other abilities constitute a successful scientist." This is why we also include additional significant workshops and seminars on themes like communication, dispute resolution, industry partnerships, and grad school application strategy.

A Future-Shaping Summer Experience

Grad student positions in a professor's lab might occasionally result from the connections made between students and instructors during the program.

"The program definitely draws the brightest kids to spend a summer at Tech and perhaps see themselves here for graduate school," said Neu. "At least one of my former SURE students has returned to Tech to complete their master's degree in my lab."

Beyond offering potential routes to graduate school, SURE has significant effects on students' professional trajectories. The variety of research that the cohort is exposed to through student presentations broadens their perspectives on what it means to conduct research and the variety of labs that are open to them.

Additionally, students develop relationships with their peers and mentors that continue long after the program has ended and support them in their future careers.

"Our program brings together kids from diverse ages, backgrounds, and disciplines to collaborate, learn from one another, and develop lifetime connections," said Servance.

Beyond the effects on particular students, Georgia Tech's SURE offers important assistance to minority students in an effort to diversify the STEM field in both academia and industry.

Supporting minority students and fostering their success in academics and research is crucial, according to Mazumdar. "The SURE program does a fantastic job enhancing Georgia Tech's commitment to inclusion and diversity."

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