Research ‘Puts Learning into Practice’ for Student
In class, Lin Fan has listened to his professors explain the theory behind mechanical engineering. But his experiences in Todd Sulchek’s lab — both the challenges and successes — have ensured that he actually learned and understood it.
“I wanted to put what I was learning in lecture into practice, and getting involved in research was a way to make this happen,” said Fan, who will receive his bachelor of science in Mechanical Engineering next month.
Fan is one of 165 students who will present at this year’s Undergraduate Research Spring Symposium on April 10 from 1 to 6 p.m. The event is an opportunity for undergraduate students to share their research with students, faculty and staff from across campus.
According to Chris Reaves, director of undergraduate research, about 42 percent of graduating seniors indicate that they had an undergraduate research experience.
Fan began working with Sulchek, an assistant professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering, two years ago. Sulchek’s interest in working with undergraduates stemmed from his own positive experience as a student.
“As an undergraduate, I was able to get involved with research and had a great experience,” Sulchek said. “So it’s important to me to provide students with the same opportunity. I just wish more undergraduates would take advantage of these opportunities while they’re at Tech.”
When Fan began working in Sulchek’s lab, there were some initial challenges. For example, the first project he worked on wasn’t the best fit for him. It was more chemical engineering-based than mechanical, and it was difficult to collaborate with fellow students in the lab because none of them were working on a project similar to Fan’s.
“But I appreciated that Dr. Sulchek let me pursue the project and figure this out for myself,” Fan said.
Before Fan could get frustrated, Sulchek offered him the opportunity to work on another project that was a better fit.
One aspect of Sulchek’s research in nanotechnology is using an atomic force
microscope (AFM). The AFM “sees” tiny objects (such as molecules) with the help of a small probe that touches the object’s surfaces and creates an image based on what it feels.
Unfortunately, the probe or the surface often gets damaged during the process. To remedy the problem, Fan created a method to hover the AFM’s probe at a fixed distance above the surface, which decreases the risk of damage to the probe and the surface.
Last month, Fan’s research was published for the first time in an academic journal, the Review of Scientific Instruments — which doesn’t happen to most undergraduates, Sulchek added.
“It’s so amazing to see more than a year’s work finally pay off, ” said Fan, who will spend the summer working in Sulchek’s lab before he moves on to graduate school.
The two do have a few words of advice for faculty members who work with undergraduate researchers. For example, Sulchek recommends that the faculty member ensure that the student’s project be well defined so that progress can be made in the time the student is working in the lab. He also suggests that a graduate student mentor be assigned to each undergraduate researcher.
Fan suggests that faculty members make time to meet with the students one-on-one, as that was an important part of his success in Sulchek’s lab.
For more about the spring symposium and other undergraduate research opportunities at Tech, click here.