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Syracuse University's summer research program inspires undergraduates to become tomorrow's scientists

May 12, 2008

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-2201

Judy Holmes

This summer, 35 undergraduate students from Syracuse University and other universities and colleges across the United States and abroad will participate in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program, sponsored by the Department of Chemistry in SU's College of Arts and Sciences.

This is the ninth consecutive year the department has been a host site for the foundation's highly competitive REU program, which supports student summer research in the sciences and mathematics to encourage more to enter those fields. REU students work directly with SU's faculty, research associates and graduate students on projects in a variety of research areas, including inorganic, organic and physical chemistry; biochemistry; materials science; and x-ray diffraction.

"SU sponsors one of the larger REU programs in the country," says chemistry professor Karin Ruhlandt-Senge, who directs the program with chemistry associate professor Michael Sponsler. "Our program is very competitive. This year, we had 300 students apply for 24 positions in our domestic program and 80 apply for six positions in our international program."

This is the fourth summer that SU has hosted an international REU program in collaboration with the Graz University of Technology, Austria. Eleven students (five from SU and six from other U.S. colleges and universities) will travel to Graz to conduct research there, and 11 Austrian students will arrive at SU in June to do research here. Since its inception, 36 U.S. students (11 from SU) have participated in the international REU program.

Students in both the domestic and international REU programs receive a stipend, campus housing and travel assistance. Because the NSF limits the number of federally funded REU spots a host university can award its own students, SU's REU program receives additional funding from The College of Arts and Sciences and other University resources to support SU students. This summer, NSF funds will support 13 students in the domestic program and six in the international program. The remaining 16 participants are supported with SU funding. The Austrian students are supported by their home institution.

"Many of the REU participants come from small colleges that are unable to provide research opportunities for their students," Ruhlandt-Senge says. "We can provide that experience. Additionally, the program is an opportunity for students to focus exclusively on research, without the distraction of coursework and other activities. REU mimics the experience they would have in graduate school and often helps them determine whether this is what they want to do."

Of the 205 participants in SU's REU program since 2000 (55 from SU), 75 percent went on to graduate school and many of the remaining entered medical school. A few now teach in high schools. Ana Torvisco participated in SU's REU program in 2002 when she attended Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. She was the only chemistry major in her class.

"The REU experience solidified my interest in graduate school," says Torvisco, who is now working on a Ph.D. in chemistry at SU. "The experience was definitely a defining moment for what I was going to be doing." As an REU student, Torvisco worked with Ruhlandt-Senge. That experience was key in her decision to choose SU over Georgia Tech for graduate school. Still working with Ruhlandt-Senge, Torvisco is focusing her research on developing compounds that could be used in semiconductor materials, metal films and RAM memory chips for computers.

During the 10-week REU program, students learn how to function in a laboratory and conduct their own experiments. The students' results often become part of a published research paper. The students also meet weekly for presentations by SU faculty members about the research that is being done in their labs.

"When I came to SU as an REU student, I thought I would wash a graduate student's glassware," says Danielle Schuehler, a Le Moyne College alumna. "I was honored to be accepted into the program, but I didn't think I would be doing real research. It turned out I had my own project and worked closely with a graduate student who really held my hand and was a tremendous help."

Schuehler participated in the 2002 REU program between her first year and sophomore year; typically students complete their junior year before being accepted. Schuehler worked in Sponsler's lab that summer, continued working with him as an undergraduate through a special arrangement with Le Moyne and, since 2005, as a graduate student at SU. She works with polymer chains to create molecular wires useful in nanotechnology. Her goal is to work in the nanotechnology industry.

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