The following article appeared in The Compass, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Vol. 4, No. 19, June 24, 1993.

SUNFEST Program Encourages Students to Choose Research

Scientist and engineers look for answers in a laboratory. They also look for future researchers. Who will make up the next generation of tinkerers and explorers, prodders and pokers, they wonder, and where will they come from. Dr. Jan Van der Spiegel, associate professor of electrical engineering, doesn't wait for future scientists to come to him -- he goes to them.

He coordinates the Summer Undergraduate Fellowship Program (known as SUNFEST), which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program is designed to bring undergraduates who are considering graduate school (the incubator of future scientists) to Penn for an intensive summer of research and study. Six of this year's twelve students are from Penn; the rest are from such schools as Haverford College, the University of Puerto Rico, and Cornell University.

Van der Spiegel states the mission of the program bluntly: They do research. I work with other faculty members and make sure they just aren't 'go-fers'. We ensure that the students have contact with the faculty and other graduate students, and we have regular meetings with them to monitor their progress.

As Van der Spiegel puts it, One of the reasons we're here is to educate students and I feel very strongly that we have a responsibility to encourage them to pursue graduate school.

Dr. Jorge Santiago-Aviles, associate professor of electrical engineering, agrees: Often, students believe that 'research is inaccessible, that there's a group selected by the gods to do research. We want to demystify that.

Students must send in written applications and recommendations to Van der Spiegel, who chooses the students based on merit, attitude, and commitment to study (I just don't want someone who's looking for a summer job, he says). The students who are selected meet with the participating faculty to decide which research projects to join.

Participating students receive a stipend (they are responsible for their own housing in the summer), and spend at least 40 hours a week working. The program runs from mid-May to mid-August.

Getting That First Taste

Just as there are different areas for the students to pursue, there are different reasons why they've chosen to enter the program. Naomi Takahashi, a bioengineering major from Penn, definitely wants to go to graduate school but she's here to get a feel for what's out there in research. She's working with Ralph Etienne- Cummings, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering, who is studying robotic vision.

Christopher Rothey, a management and technology student at Penn, is working toward degrees in electrical engineering and finance. He is not sure whether he will pursue a career as a scientist, but he says he has gained important lessons so far: I've gotten a taste of what research is -- how it is done and why its done the way it is. So if I'm in business, I'll have a better understanding of what researchers need. Rothey is working with Dr. Paul Mueller, research professor of biochemistry and biophysics, and Van der Spiegel on a project to develop a neural network computer.

James Collins, an engineering major at Penn who has been in the program before, enjoys learning the finer points of research: "It's a subtle process, he says. "I think its a combination of learning the techniques of research, but also getting a 'feel' of what you think will work.

Dr. Santiago has what he calls my own agenda for taking part in SUNFEST'93: "to get underrepresented minorities to pursue graduate degrees." This year, three Hispanic students are studying with Santiago. In the program we've had 11 students from the university of Puerto Rico and ten have gone on to graduate school, he says. This summer, Lillian Ortiz, a mathematics major from UPR, is helping Santiago with research he is conducting with a collaborator in Puerto Rico under a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Ortiz, says Santiago, will continue the work when she returns to her university.

Sharing the Students's Energy

Students are not the only ones to benefit from the program. Dr. Ken Foster, associate professor of bioengineering, says he becomes "energized" by working with the SUNFEST students: "they're really bright and eager, and their enthusiasm is contagious." Dr. Jay Zemel, Ramsey Professor in Sensor Technologies, says that having SUNFEST students for the past few years enables him and colleagues to begin experiments in microfluidics: We wouldn't have that program now if it were not for them. They've been invaluable.

Etienne-Cummings, the Ph.D. student, says he has learned how to be a better teacher from working with the students in the program. The experience, he believes, will help him when he pursues a career in academia.

The first part of the program requires a great deal of reading on the part of the students, to catch up on the field. But later in the summer, they will get their chance in the lab. According to Van der Spiegel, many of the students have published their research findings.

And its not all work -- there are several social events, such as picnics, boat trips and other outings.

---Jon Caroulis

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