Last fall, the Office of Research at UT Dallas gave out 107 Undergraduate Research Scholar Awards, a record number for the 8-year-old competitive grant program that funds student research under the guidance of faculty mentors.
More than 80 of those student researchers displayed the results of their efforts in the Undergraduate Research Scholar Awards and Poster Contest held on campus recently as part of the Exhibition of Excellence in Undergraduate Education, organized by the Office of Undergraduate Education. Faculty judges chose 16 to qualify for a final round of evaluation — and cash prizes — held April 14.
“This is by far the largest one of these events we’ve had,” said Dr. Bruce Gnade, vice president for research at UT Dallas and the Distinguished Professor of Microelectronics. “The quality of the posters was just phenomenal.”
The final competition was sponsored by Raytheon and included 10 judges representing industry and education.
“The judges were truly impressed, and well they should be,” Gnade said. “The students’ work not only speaks volumes about the quality of their individual research, but about the University. The fact that the quality could be this good over such a fabulous group of topics is just amazing.”
Students from six UT Dallas schools were represented: the School of Arts and Humanities; the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences; the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences; the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science; the Naveen Jindal School of Management; and the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
Research topics touched on charging systems for electric vehicles, Muslim fraternities, high-energy physics, novel drug-delivery methods, bioengineering advances and the dynamic delivery of arts information, among others.
The top prize went to chemistry senior Justin Miller, whose research focused on fabricating novel materials to more efficiently harvest solar energy.
“We are working on the basic science that would be required for the manufacture of next-generation solar cells,” he said. “These are self-assembled, semiconductor nanocrystals.”
Miller worked with an interdisciplinary research group led by Dr. Yves Chabal, professor and head of materials science and engineering and the Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in Nanoelectronics. Miller said he chose to attend and continue his graduate studies at UT Dallas in part because of its focus on science.
“UT Dallas has all that I wanted, which is why I’m also coming here for graduate school,” said Miller, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in May.
Vasu Jindal, a freshman in computer science, received second place for his project that applied the mathematical principles of a card-game-like puzzle called Topswops toward a better understanding of genetics. His mentor was Dr. Sergey Bereg, associate professor of computer science.
“I have previously done work in machine learning and big data technology, and this problem is related to big data,” said Jindal, who conducted bioinformatics research in high school. “I wanted to continue this line of work at UT Dallas.”
Third place went to Taylor Sells, a biology senior who was guided by faculty member Dr. Duane Winkler, assistant professor of biological sciences. Sells’s project aimed to provide a better understanding of proteins implicated in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. The challenge, she said, is to gain insight about the proteins’ structures and how they interact.
“I liked structural biology from the get-go,” said Sells, who has been accepted to pursue graduate studies in the structural biology program at Yale University. “This project was a lot of fun. The grant allowed me to take on more autonomy and initiative than I might have been able to otherwise, so I’m grateful for the experience, which allowed me to get into a really great graduate school.”
Contest judges, including William Pack, senior principle systems engineer with Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, said they were impressed with the undergraduates’ knowledge and research progress.
“When I was an undergraduate 20 years ago, the push for research was not at that level. We were trying to prepare for grad school research,” Pack said. “But these kids have really picked up a lot of knowledge in a short amount of time and are already at the cutting edge in some areas.”
UT Dallas alumnus David Williamson BS’98, MS’02, MS’03, vice president of geoscience at Forge Energy, has judged the contest in the past and said the event showcases the breadth of areas available for student research.
“I’m not surprised, but this pleasantly reaffirms that year after year after year the quality of student research is astounding,” he said. “The caliber of the students, the fact that they are doing undergraduate research at this level with diverse applicability is wonderful.”
Lynn Mortensen, a retired vice president for engineering at Raytheon, said that the student-researchers learn other essential skills that are crucial in the post-graduation workforce.
“The teamwork aspect and the ability to communicate are important,” said Mortensen, who is a member of the Jonsson School’s Industrial Advisory Council. “To be able to explain concepts to people who are not intimate with their research is essential, especially when you are out there trying to look for grant money and excite other people. Those soft skills are incredibly valuable.”
Mortensen also was impressed by the fact that several contestants were first-year students.
“To be involved with this advanced research at the freshman level is pretty amazing,” she said. “It speaks volumes about the opportunities that are at UT Dallas for students to come in and not just go through standard classes, but to get hands-on research experience, and get excited about it.”
Undergraduate Research Poster Contest Finals
First place: Justin Miller, chemistry senior, School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
Second place: Vasu Jindal, computer science freshman, Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science
Third place: Taylor Sells, biology senior, School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
- Dr. Jason Ballengee, senior research engineer, PepsiCo
- Todd Edwards, engineer, Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services
- Judah Epstein, adjunct geology faculty, Brookhaven College
- Dr. Barbara Fishel, dean of studies/director of research, The Hockaday School
- Dr. Tom Hill, retired fellow, Hewlett Packard
- Lynn Mortensen, retired vice president for engineering, Raytheon
- William Pack, senior principal systems engineer, Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems
- Dr. David Thomas, executive vice president, research & development, Dr Pepper Snapple
- David Williamson, vice president of geoscience, Forge Energy
- Steve Zimmel, head of VoLTE Competence Center, Ericsson
Melanie Maurer is a bioengineering junior and Eugene McDermott Scholar who has worked in UT Dallas research labs since her freshman year. Her project, which has applications to cardiovascular disease, examined how white blood cells called macrophages grow and proliferate on surfaces of varying stiffness.