NSF-funded program supports diverse group of undergraduates in biomechanical engineering

Even accomplished researchers know that luck can play a role in scientific breakthroughs.

That was one important message shared by Babatunde A. Ogunnaike, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware, in a special seminar for undergraduate researchers on July 5.

“When you do research, keep your eyes open,” he said. “In many cases, researchers get lucky — that’s how Teflon was discovered.”

Five weeks later, the students in that audience were presenting the results of their own research at a one-day symposium highlighting the work of some 400 students from more than 40 institutions.

The group who heard Ogunnaike’s message, participants in the Dare to BE FIRST Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), learned some lessons of their own along the way.

“I had hoped to present our preliminary data today, but I ran into some issues,” said the University of Florida’s Meggie Pires-Fernandes in a presentation she delivered halfway through the project.

“That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned so far this summer — research involves a lot of waiting and dealing with technical difficulties, but it’s worth it to get those good numbers.”

UD’s newest REU is aimed at creating independent research experiences in biomechanical engineering for undergraduate students with diverse backgrounds. Led by professors Jill Higginson and Lucas Lu, the program is housed within UD’s Center for Biomechanical Engineering Research (CBER).

“The REU site leverages CBER’s strengths in cutting-edge osteoarthritis research in order to expose students to the power of quantitative skills in solving biomedical problems from bench to bedside,” says Lu.

Projects addressed topics ranging from cellular-level tissue mechanics to 3-D printing and characterization of a unique material that has potential application in athletic shoe insoles.

One student examined redistribution of backpack load, while another investigated a driving simulator to test post-surgical reaction time.

But all learned lessons beyond the data they collected using mathematical models, microscopes and mechanical testing.

They learned that poring through patient data is a painstaking time-consuming process and that finding qualified human subjects can be challenging.

They taught themselves new software, and they stayed up late at night babysitting a balky 3-D printer.

For some, like Takunda Masika, who attends Clark College, a community college in Vancouver, Washington, spending the summer at UD provided a window into not only the world of research but also the opportunities offered by graduate school.

For Higginson and Lu, the first year of the Dare to BE FIRST REU was a resounding success.

“The students were carefully selected, mostly from partner schools, and they were ambitious and motivated to get the job done,” says Higginson. “The posters they presented at the symposium were of professional quality with content worthy of national and international scientific conferences – not bad for just 10 weeks at a new school.”

And, while Ogunnaike’s guest lecture early in the summer focused on optimizing in vitro fertilization treatment, his overall messages rang loud and clear for anyone doing scientific research.

“Don’t try to predict the unpredictable, but you can talk about probability,” he said.

“No mathematical model is perfect,” he added. “If you’re going to use a mathematical model, please validate it before you sell the farm.”

Quick facts about the Dare to BE FIRST REU

• Student majors included biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering, bioengineering, mechanical engineering, biology, and applied physiology and kinesiology.

• Research advisers at UD included Dawn Elliott, Sergi Fabrizio, Megan Killian, Christopher Price, and John Slater (biomedical engineering); Tom Buchanan, Jill Higginson, Lucas Lu, Kurt Manal, and Liyun Wang (mechanical engineering); Chris Modlesky (kinesiology and applied physiology); and Darcy Reisman (physical therapy).

• Participants hailed from Boston University, Clark College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Penn State University, Saint Joseph’s University, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Delaware, University of Florida, University of Pennsylvania, Washington University in St. Louis, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

• In addition to hands‐on experience in research laboratories, activities included scientific and professional development workshops, visits to research labs and clinical sites, networking opportunities, and interdisciplinary communication with scientists from graduate students to orthopedic surgeons.

About the REU Program

The REU Program supports active research participation by undergraduate students in any of the areas of research funded by the National Science Foundation. REU projects involve students in meaningful ways in ongoing research programs or in research projects specifically designed for the REU program. UD’s Dare to BE FIRST REU is funded for five years.

ResearchResearch Experiences for Undergrads