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Asking the right questions: The 2014 Undergraduate Research Symposium

The top engineering students from Lehigh and Lafayette took the spotlight in April for the annual David and Lorraine Freed Undergraduate Research Symposium, a showcase of the best in undergraduate research.

Celebrating its 10th year, the event featured 20 research projects by 25 students across both schools. The Symposium provides an excellent training ground for its undergraduates to exercise their communcation skills through the explanation of their research.

The winners, as selected by a judging panel of professional engineers, are awarded travel stipends to attend professional conferences that entail further opportunity for students to promote their work.

First place went to Lehigh chemical and biomolecular engineering major Mathew Boyer for his research on "Coarse-Grained DNA Modeling." Boyer conducted his research under the guidance of Jeetain Mittal, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Boyer will continue his studies this fall in graduate school at the University of Texas-Austin.

Materials science and engineering senior Derek Weisberg earn second place and the People's Choice Award for his research, "Seeded Lateral Epitaxy of ALD Alumina Thin Films."

"Sapphire is very expensive and is used in semi-conductors that are in most electronics," Weisberg explained. "I developed a poly-crystal that is slightly different than sapphire but can still be used in semi-conductors. The ploy-crystal is cheaper and faster to make than sapphire."

Weisberg, nominated by deparment chair Helen Chan and assistant professor Nicholas Strandwitz, will be working for Wisconsin-based Epic after graduation.

Developed by materials science professors Himanshu Jain and Wojciech Misiolek and endowed by alumnus Andrew Freed '83 in honor of his parents, the symposium showcases undergraduate research achievement and encourages Lehigh students to enrich their learning experience through research.

"Conducting research as an undergraduate pushes students beyond the classroom," Misiolek explained. "Research is investigating a problem in-depth with the ability to focus and investigate a specific problem with no obvious answer. Hands-on research with post-docs and professors can help students decide if they want to do research or not, both being valuable lessons. It pushes students to explore beyond the textbook."

"This event simulates what a professional national meeting would be like," said Jain. "The time is limited, and students have to be able to articulate and condense their research. You have to push them out of their comfort-zone."

This year's symposium marks the end of an era as Lehigh bids a fond farewell to its Dean of Engineering, S. David Wu, who will be joining George Mason University as its next provost and executive vice president.

"In the beginning, it was just a stand-up presentation in a classroom," explained Wu. "Now it is like a professional conference format that can help the students practice for their career. The depth has increased a lot, with many of the students having worked on their research for two to three years. Research involves open-ended problems that are not well-structured. It is important to be able to ask the right research questions to define what problems need to be solved."

The annual event was one of Wu’s favorite days on Lehigh’s calendar.

"It is bittersweet. [The symposium] is one of the events where I really enjoy seeing the students so poised and confident. It is a very satisfying feeling."

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