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Broadening horizons in a pandemic

A word cloud that shows some of the universities attended by the nearly 800 students participating in the Zoom REU. 

San Diego, Calif., Oct. 12, 2020-- More than 1,200 students from around the world were able to gain experience, advice and insight into their field this summer thanks to the expansion of two previously in-person only summer research programs at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. The Biomaterials Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program which typically hosts 10 students in person, was expanded to accommodate nearly 800 students from 10 countries and 31 states. The Enlace binational research program expanded from 120 students to accommodate 450 students from the US and Mexico.

Traditionally, bioengineering professor Adam Engler and research scientist Roberto Gaetani host about a dozen students each summer for a paid Biomaterials Research Experience for Undergraduates program funded by the National Science Foundation. The students conduct research in various labs on campus focused on tissue engineering, nanoparticles for drug delivery, and bioinspired materials, for example, and also participate in a GRE prep course, research development workshops and field trips. 

Meanwhile, mechanical engineering professor Olivia Graeve has hosted upwards of 100 students on campus for the past seven summers through her Enlace program, bridging the US-Mexico divide through STEM research. In that program, high school and college students from both sides of the border are partnered as they conduct research together, attend college and graduate school prep workshops together, and live in the dorms together.

Instead of cancelling the programs when it became clear in the spring that in-person options would be limited, both Engler and Graeve immediately went to work to transition to virtual options, opening up the rosters to many more students from around the world than were previously able to participate.

Zoom REU

Ana Cristina Corona-Garza, a bioengineering undergraduate student at Tecnologico de Monterrey and a Zoom REU participant.

“Right now I’m in Monterrey Mexico, which is in the northern part of Mexico just a little bit south of Texas,” said Ana Cristina Corona-Garza, one of the 800 students who took part in the virtual Biomaterials REU program. She’s a bioengineering undergraduate student at Tecnologico de Monterrey. “I heard about the Zoom REU opportunity because one of my professors put it on his Facebook and I was like oh that sounds cool, you know I really don’t have anything to do this summer. It’s been a great experience. Thanks to the Zoom REU I got a better perspective about what options are out there and what I could do as an undergraduate.”

Same goes for Jacqualyn Washington, a biomedical engineering student at Rowan University, who found her summer plans dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but still wanted to somehow gain experience and career advice before she entered her senior year of college.

“As soon as the pandemic happened, everything shut down, no one was able to do anything,” she said. “I was so flustered, and lost. That’s a good way to describe it.

“Through the REU, I felt like I really got a firsthand experience on the opportunities available on the other side of the nation,” she added. “We had a session where we talked to industry representatives and hearing their stories we learned that everybody’s path isn’t straight and narrow, so it was nice to hear that it’s ok to take a year off to make sure you have everything you need before going into academia.”

For UC San Diego chemical engineering student Tina Reuter, the REU helped her gain clarity on her next steps after she graduates. 

“I signed up because it was so convenient since the sessions were recorded, which was nice because I was also taking classes this summer,” she said. “It was great to have this the summer before my junior year to help me figure out do I want to go to grad school, do I want to go into industry. I think that was the biggest thing that helped me, was hearing other peoples’ experiences, what they did, whether it’s a masters, or industry or even an MBA.”

Jacqualyn Washington, a biomedical engineering student at Rowan University and Zoom REU participant.

In addition to panels with biotech industry representatives and current bioengineering graduate students, the REU participants also heard directly from many biomaterials faculty at UC San Diego about their field of study and their path to professorship. In all, the program featured 25 hours of programming in 19 sessions over eight weeks. A highlight for many students was just getting to connect with so many other students interested in biomaterials from around the world.

“It was really great that there was a lot of diversity in the group,” said Corona-Garza. “Actually a few of the Spanish-speaking people from the group organized ourselves and made a WhatsApp group, so there are 26 of us from around the world—Colombia, Peru, Mexico, the US—that have been talking there.”

While Engler is excited to offer the in-person research experience again when he’s able, he said the response to the virtual program was so overwhelming that he hopes to continue to offer it in the future.

 “I think that becoming an open program was the right decision in the pandemic,” he said. “So many students lost their jobs, internships, or research experiences as a result of the pandemic, and I don’t think that we would have felt right in keeping the exclusivity of our small program with 10 students. Next summer we will likely keep as much of our program online to expand opportunities for all students, even if we are able to offer in-person experiences as well.”

Building Bridges through Zoom

Since Graeve wasn’t able to offer students the hands-on research experience that is typically a key component of Enlace, she decided instead to host weekly college and graduate school workshops to prepare high school participants to apply to college, and undergraduate students to apply for graduate school. 

UC San Diego chemical engineering student Tina Reuter.

For Jessica Tortoledo, a senior nanotechnology student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Enlace program helped her not only polish her graduate school application, but firm up her future plans. 

“Because of this program I will apply to a PhD at UC San Diego in materials science and engineering,” said Tortoledo, who participated in Enlace in person last year, and found it so meaningful she wanted to join this virtual experience as well. “Initially, I was going to apply to a master´s program at a different university, but I decided to go straight into PhD because I was able to chat with PhD students through Enlace and that gave me a different perspective.”

For Graeve, the key component of Enlace has always been developing these budding friendships between aspiring scientists and engineers on both sides of the border, with a goal of building binational bridges through STEM. Would that still happen in a virtual setting? 

 “Besides all the tools we received in the program, what I enjoyed the most was the connections we were able to create between the participants despite it being a virtual event,” said Tortoledo. “I particularly enjoyed the last session because it had a student panel, and UC San Diego students talked about their experiences with grad school. I got so motivated that I finished my statement of purpose that night.”

Media Contacts

Katherine Connor
Jacobs School of Engineering
858-534-8374
khconnor@eng.ucsd.edu

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