Developing the Skills of Undergraduates with World-Class Research Labs and Facilities

The first modern seatbelt was created at Cornell University; some of the earliest applications of solar power were pioneered at MIT; and Robert Goddard created the first liquid-rocket while at Clark University. It is hardly a stretch to contend that university-based research has generated some of the world’s most impactful innovations.

Higher education serves as a hub of knowledge and discovery, and over half of our nation’s basic research takes place at higher education campuses. Professors are instrumental in this process, but students also play an integral role in the vital research being conducted every day. Students benefit from the training in crucial ways, and studies show that students who engage in research are twice as likely to graduate and five times more likely to advance to graduate school. These students go on to become the next generation of scientists, engineers, educators, and leaders in government and industry. Of course, none of this would be possible without stellar on-campus research labs and facilities.

According to a recent survey by the consulting company of Carter & Burgess, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the buildings that matter most to prospective students may not be the ones college administrators and others would expect: 73.6% of student respondents named facilities related to their majors as “extremely important” or “very important” in choosing a college.

These were followed by other academic-oriented facilities such as the library, technology, and classrooms. We understand that students have numerous wishes and expectations—and the appeal of a rewarding campus life goes a long way—but there is something reassuring in our students taking so seriously the advantages provided by world-class academic facilities.

In terms of research and training that prepares students for dynamic careers, the options among private universities and colleges are as exciting as they are vast. What follows are examples of research labs and facilities that empower our students, serving as environments where they can flourish and develop skills that, who knows, may lead to yet another groundbreaking innovation.

Astronomy and Physics Research at Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876 as the nation’s first research university. This tradition has carried over for nearly 150 years, and the institution now offers scientific research opportunities in almost any field at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels, thereby illustrating the mission of JHU, which is “discovery—the creation of new knowledge through research and scholarship.”

At JHU, the Henry A. Rowland Center for Astronomy and Physics is unique in offering research to graduates and undergraduates alike, and in fields such as Astrophysics, Condensed Matter Physics, Particle Physics, and Plasma Spectroscopy. Students are exposed to state-of-the-art technology and instruments, benefitting from the best aspects of a top research university that also offers more intimate learning environments typical of small liberal arts colleges. Contained within the Center is the Condensed Matter Physics Lab as well as a space for optical floating zone furnaces.

Regarding the latter, students can interact with a number of floating zone furnaces. One example is a halogen optical floating zone furnace, which is used to grow and study a variety of bulk crystals. Students can also access a cleanroom with temperature and humidity control, multiple-source sputtering chambers, pulsed laser, tubular furnaces, a Raman spectrometer, a helium liquefier, and so many other incredible lab instruments. At the Maryland Space Grant Observatory, students explore the sky with the Morris W. Offit Telescope, which has as its major optical element a 20-inch-diameter parabolic mirror.

Located in the upper level of the Henry A. Rowland Center is the Physics Undergraduate Computer (PUC) Lab. As the name states, the lab is reserved for the exclusive use of undergraduate physics students, and the computers run computational and instructional software used for physics courses offered by the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The PRISM Program at Princeton University

Research is integral at Princeton University (Princeton, New Jersey), with over 1,100 participating faculty members in 34 academic departments, and 75 institutes and centers. Students at all levels are encouraged to participate in research, and plenty of funding is available. One opportunity available for undergraduates is through the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM), where undergraduates can earn a Certificate in Materials by taking a combination of core courses and participating in research with PRISM faculty.

PRISM was founded to develop a deeper understanding of the world of materials and their applications, and this interdisciplinary program is led by faculty from nearly all of the academic departments in both the natural and life sciences as well as engineering. Research direction at PRISM falls broadly into five emerging themes: Quantum Materials and Structures, which entails creating near-atomic scale structures exhibiting quantum processes that can lead to fundamental new properties; Scalable Structures, or developing materials with complex properties and functions from the nanoscale to the large-area macroscale for a diverse set of applications; Photo and Light-Matter Interactions, or enabling new limits in imaging, sensing, and transmission capabilities through the creation of new optical sources, optical processes, and nanostructured materials; Bio-Nano Intersection, which entails the use of small and highly parallel structures to learn about biology on the level of a single cell through new clinical tools and probes; and finally, Theory and Computational, which seeks to understand the relationship between the macroscopic behavior of complex materials and their structures.

The research by PRISM is obviously highly specialized, the sort of work that can only be managed with the most sophisticated research facilities available. PRISM operates two large scale multi-user research facilities—the PRISM Cleanroom and the Imaging and Analysis Center (IAC).

The PRISM Cleanroom, which is located in the 129,000 square foot Andlinger Building, occupies two levels of the building. The Cleanroom is used by about 200 students, faculty, research staff, and industrial partners per year, and it provides a complete set of tools for designing, fabricating, prototyping, and testing a wide range of micro and nano structures and devices, with substrates ranging from traditional silicon and compound conductor substrates to flexible metal and plastic foils. Contiguous with the main cleanroom is a 1,500 square foot teaching lab, where courses and lab sessions are taught.

Also nearby is the Soft Materials (microfluidics) Lab, which has an independent gowning entrance to prevent cross-contamination into the primary cleanroom. Its capabilities include protein or suspended nanoparticle inkjet printers, SU-8 and PDMS processing, and a Heidelberg uPG laser direct patterning tool, all of which enable interdisciplinary research and collaboration. An adjacent stand-alone Packaging Lab is located on the lower level of the building, and it houses a full range of services including dicing and singulation, planarization, wedge, ball and flip-chip bonding techniques.

Users of the IAC, like the PRISM Cleanroom, can access multiple research and laboratory instruments for their work. As such, they engage in material and structural characterization techniques, those such as scanning and transmission electron microscopy (including an environmental scanning electron microscope for biological materials), focused ion beams, scanning probe microscopy, x-ray diffractions, and more.

Recent IAC users include over 250 students and researchers from 18 departments and centers on campus. Undergraduates are provided with the opportunity to operate various electron microscopes during class and can later use these instruments in research for their senior thesis. More impressive, the research experience provided by the IAC has helped students win many national awards including AFCEA National Grand Prize for Science, the Fannie and John Hertz Fellowship Foundation, the Barry M. Goldwater National Scholarship, the Fulbright Scholarship, as well as the National Science Foundation Fellowship.

Training Undergraduates at Boston College

Established in 1997, the Undergraduate Research Fellows Program at Boston College was founded for the purpose of enhancing the academic experience of undergraduates by developing their research skills and fostering relationships between students and faculty. Through this program, students receive a grant to pay for their research, and they serve as research assistants to faculty members.

Recipients of the program have been allowed access to the institution’s wide array of cutting-edge shared research resources, those which include seven core facilities and three recharge centers. Among its facilities is the Clean Room & Nanofabrication Facility, which is home to over 30 high-end micro and nanoscale instrumentation systems. It is comprised of 1,500 square feet of Class 1,000 and Class 10,000 cleanroom spaces in addition to a lab that enables highly sensitive materials and devices to be fabricated free from contaminants. The lab is also supported by an air handling unit that completely cleans and renews all the air in the facility every 45 seconds.

Built in 2016, Boston College’s Center for Isotope Geochemistry is a specialized facility dedicated to high precision analysis of isotopic ratios in geological, marine, environmental, and archaeological materials. The Center is located within the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department and contains a clean room with class 100 workspaces, an Isotopx Phoenix Thermal Ionization Mass Spectrometer (IRMS), a Thermo Delta V Isotope Ration Mass Spectrometer (TIMS) equipped with a Gas Bench II, and a mineral preparation laboratory. Principally, the Center takes a collaborative approach to research, and in most cases the users—including undergraduates—are trained how to prepare, separate, purify, and analyze samples under the direction of Center management.

The Pleasure of Providing

Students understand the value in being able to access world-class research labs and facilities. As they study and work, they get to learn directly from their professors and one another. In doing so, they acquire skills that prepare them for future careers—and of course, we want to attract students who are actively invested in their own development, who are motivated and eager to interact with incredible technologies that in turn help them to grow in confidence and skill. What a pleasure it is to provide them with the best learning environments possible.

About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.