Twelve MTSU undergraduates will head out close to home, across the country and beyond this summer after qualifying for prestigious National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates, or REU, grant placements.
• Oscar Allen will research physics at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
• Ian Alcox will research computational physics at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
• Tague Clayton will research physics at the National Institute of Standards & Technology.
• James Evans will research quantitative biology using genomics at the University of California Los Angeles.
• Monika Fouad will research physics and biochemistry at Texas A&M University.
• Thomas Freeman and Ethan Weiche will research physics at the University of Arkansas.
• Kendra Givens will research computer science at Carnegie Mellon.
• Elizabeth Kowalczyk will research forensic science at an international placement in Mexico through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
• Ariel Nicastro will research physics at the University of Maryland.
• Rachael Quinby will research physics at Vanderbilt University.
• Alexandria Williams will research biology at the University of Notre Dame.
The government-funded REU Sites program provides research opportunities for undergraduate students, according to the National Science Foundation website. Each site hosts about 10 students, who work on a specific research project with host-university faculty and other researchers for about six to 10 weeks. Funds cover stipends for the students’ work and often will pay for students’ travel and housing as well.
Physics REU students
Dr. Hanna Terletska, an associate professor in MTSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, successfully mentored seven students into acceptance into REUs this year, an effort for which she recently received the Exemplary Faculty Service Award from MTSU’s University Honors College.
All seven students were in her newly launched Quantum Computing course, which Terletska said played a significant role in preparing them for the rigorous research experiences offered by REUs.
Terletska said she keeps her students informed of REU opportunities, adding that these placements can serve as a steppingstone toward students’ success in obtaining admission to top graduate schools.
Through the many avenues of mentorship she offers — her courses, her research group and the REU workshop she runs every fall semester as part of the Women in Physics student group — her goal is to maximize students’ chances of securing an REU position.
“Over the years, I have had the pleasure of mentoring and guiding students who have gone on to win NSF REU awards,” Terletska said. “It is a source of great pride for me to see my students secure these prestigious opportunities. Many of them have gone on to pursue their graduate studies at renowned institutions such as the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Boston University, Cornell University and many others.
“Ultimately, my goal is to support and empower my students to reach their full potential by exposing them to a wide range of opportunities that will shape their academic and professional journeys.”
Alcox, a physics major who just finished his sophomore year, said he pursued an REU to get a head start on graduate school preparation.
“All my support came from within the physics department,” said Alcox, who is from Lompoc, California. “Every professor you talk to is always encouraging about taking up some form of research within the department and applying to these types of programs, especially Dr. Ron Henderson and Dr. Hanna Terletska.
“Without Dr. Terletska, I literally wouldn’t have been able to get into the program I’m in. Not only did she help me through multiple revisions of my application materials, she was also the one who initially contacted and recommended that I apply for the program in the first place.”
Quinby, another physics major completing her sophomore year, said she always wanted the opportunity to try out different kinds of research in different fields of physics while visiting new schools and working with new faculty.
“I was supported greatly by the professors in the physics department who helped me with applications to almost 40 schools, especially Dr. Chuck Higgins, Dr. Nathanael Smith, Dr. Daniel Erenso and Dr. Terletska,” said the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native. “Dr. Terletska holds an REU advice panel in association with MTSU Women in Physics every fall, and it really helped demystify the entire process.”
Weiche, also a physics major who will be a junior this fall, said many professors and alumni advised him to complete an REU to open up opportunities for graduate school.
“MTSU’s physics department and its faculty provided multiple club meetings and sessions in which professors and students who have recently completed an REU talked about what to expect, why we should do it and how to apply,” said Weiche, who is originally from San Diego, California.
“I also had a ton of help from one of my professors, Dr. Terletska. She was not only one of those working to set up and run the informational meetings but she also gave her time to work with me one-on-one. I would not have had such a good application if I did not have her to guide me.”
Biology REU students
Dr. April Weissmiller, an assistant biology professor, mentored her students James Evans and Alexandria Williams throughout their REU application process.
Weissmiller said REU opportunities are critical for students planning to attend graduate school, and she works with students every December and January to alert them to these opportunities and work with them on their applications before deadlines in the spring.
“The students will be exposed to a different research environment and learn how research is performed at sites that are not MTSU,” Weissmiller said. “Students will form a network of other students that have similar goals and interests. Also, these summer programs typically have some professional development aspect fit into the program, such as teaching the students about graduate school or how to read journal articles.
“There is also a very practical side to these experiences in that participating in an external research opportunity provides the students a letter of recommendation that can speak to their ability to perform research.”
Evans, a biology major who just completed his junior year, was thrilled when he learned he had been accepted to his top REU choice — researching quantitative biology at UCLA.
“April Weissmiller has been the most supportive and enlightening mentor, professor and boss throughout the entire process,” said the Lascassas, Tennessee, native. “MTSU has faculty that may not be typical, go against the status quo, have the best personalities and support individuals to promote their growth. \
“Having professors or mentors that have trust in students is an irreplaceable experience that will foster success in everyone by allowing trust between an authority that facilitates one’s own trustworthiness of themselves.
“Every student that I know coming into a research experience has doubted themselves, but, through a shared trust, they develop confidence within.”
Those interested in Terletska’s new quantum course can learn more at www.mtsu.edu/quantum.
To learn more about undergraduate research opportunities, visit the Undergraduate Research Center website at www.mtsu.edu/urc.
— Stephanie Wagner (Stephanie.Wagner@mtsu.edu)