Programs help Jacobs School undergraduates make the most of research experiences
GEAR and ERSP set engineering and computer science students up for success as researchers
May 6, 2021 -- As a first year bioengineering major at UC San Diego, Kanksha Patel had heard that there were opportunities to do research in professors’ labs as an undergraduate, but she didn't know how to get started or what lab to join.
Emily Tang liked physics but, as a first year, wasn't clear what her nanoengineering major was all about or if it was really for her.
These two University of California San Diego engineering undergraduates broadened their understanding of what it means to study engineering -- and transformed their college experiences -- by getting involved in engineering research through a Jacobs School of Engineering program called GEAR.
GEAR stands for Guided Engineering Apprenticeship in Research, and it's run by the IDEA Engineering Student Center here at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. The program is modeled off a similar program for computer science undergraduates at the Jacobs School of Engineering called the Early Research Scholars Program (ERSP).
ERSP was launched by Christine Alvarado, who is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and also Associate Dean for Students for the Jacobs School of Engineering.
Both GEAR and ERSP bring second-year undergraduates into university research labs where they work on team projects that contribute to the actual research mission of the lab. In both programs, in addition to mentorship from people within the research lab, students get outside guidance, mentorship and community building opportunities. Students with no previous research experience and students from traditionally underrepresented groups in engineering and computer science are particularly encouraged to apply. Applications are due in the spring, and the programs run from fall through the spring of the following academic year.
One of the unique aspects of these programs is that the students are systematically required to discover and truly understand the big picture "Why" of the research lab they have joined.
"Challenging undergraduate students to understand the big picture 'Why' of the research laboratory they are working in gives them the ability to understand why their contribution matters, why the intermediate step they are responsible for is important," said Ekaterina (Katya) Evdokimenko, Ph.D.
Evdokimenko teaches the two-credit ENG 20 "Introduction to Engineering Research" course which all GEAR students take during the first-quarter of their three-quarter GEAR experience. The students cover a lot of ground in ENG 20, all of it tied to making the most of their first research experience in a lab and building on the experience in order to open more opportunities and eventually a fulfilling career.
The final ENG 20 project is a customized research proposal which the students use as a roadmap for their research project which continues for the next two quarters.
"Each week you log something different," said Patel, the bioengineering major who was embedded in Karsten Zengler's microbiology lab which is part of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego. The students learn how to communicate effectively within a research lab environment, including teasing out the big-picture goals of the lab and learning how to communicate with the professor who leads the lab as well as graduate students, research scientists and other lab group members to keep them updated.
Emily Tang felt intimidated by the prospect of joining nanoengineering professor Zheng Chen's battery lab, but she found a supportive environment and developed a research project to test the efficiency of lithium ion batteries with varying electrolyte concentrations.
"GEAR gave me more direction in what nanoengineering even is," said Tang. "I'm a nanoengineering major with an environmental studies minor. Renewable energy is something that bridges these interests."
Building on the momentum from her research experience, Tang enrolled in a graduate-level nano-scale energy course taught by world-renowned battery pioneer and nanoengineering professor Shiley Meng.
GEAR and ERSP are specifically designed for undergraduates who have never worked in a professor's research lab and aim to give all students, no matter their past experiences, the tools and support necessary for success.
"The biggest thing about the GEAR program for me is that it's introductory. I didn't know what research was like," said Tang.
Patel learned about herself through the experience. "I wasn't sure if I would like research and the lab environment." After going through GEAR, she said, "I decided I really like research. I want to pursue research after graduation."
Both Patel and Tang were in the first cohort of GEAR students during the 2019-2020 school year. They both thrived and went on to serve as tutors for the Fall 2020 GEAR class, ENG 20, taught by Evdokimenko.
"I think the GEAR experience helps students understand if they WANT to be an engineer or if they WANT to be in an engineering research lab," said Evdokimenko. "Students need to understand what it means to be an engineer."
"I think the GEAR experience helps students to understand what it means to be an engineer, what exactly engineers do, and what the word 'research' implies," said Evdokimenko.
The ERSP and GEAR programs give Jacobs School of Engineering students opportunities to answer these questions.
"This idea of engaging sophomores in research is a little bit out there," said Alvarado in a video showcasing ERSP. "People take time to warm up to the idea that sophomores can do something meaningful in a research project."
In addition to inspiring the Jacobs-School-wide program, ERSP has also inspired similar programs at a handful of universities including UC Santa Barbara.
ERSP was originally supported with funding from the National Science Foundation and is currently funded through the Department of Computer Science and Engineering here at UC San Diego. GEAR is supported through the Jacobs School of Engineering, and the pilot year was partially funded through support from the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) at UC San Diego.
UC San Diego runs a wide range of programs that help undergraduate students get involved in research. There is a Student Research portal on TritonLink and also a campus-wide Undergraduate Research website.
Jacobs School of Engineering