Undergraduate Research and Mentoring Program

At most schools, research positions with faculty are reserved for graduate students, but at Portland State, that isn’t always the case. The Undergraduate Research and Mentoring Program in the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science offers undergraduate students the ability to work closely with a faculty adviser to bring a project to life.

Dr. Christof Teuscher, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, leads the program, which has two main supporters: the Semiconductor Research Corporation Education Alliance and the Maseeh College Dean’s Office. The SRCEA funds the projects closely related to semiconductors and electrical and computer engineering, while the dean’s office supports the remaining engineering fields.

“If you look at the benefits, it’s the kind of thing that as a student you should jump on because it can really help to bootstrap your career,” Teuscher said. He explained that no matter where students want to end up in an industry job or a graduate program, participating in the URMP will help them stand out against others, and that it’s a great opportunity.

This year, 17 students from various disciplines of engineering are participating in the program. The program also includes opportunities in chemistry and physics.

The application process opened last spring and continued through the summer and early fall, allowing new students to hear about the opportunity. The official start of the program was Nov. 1, and it will continue throughout the academic year, ending with a poster presentation in late spring.

“I think the most important part of all of these opportunities is that if you work with a faculty member and you do really good work, he or she will write you a reference letter for your next application. And that can really launch you off to the next level,” Teuscher said. “I can write such good letters if a student can produce cool stuff or maybe write a paper, compared to someone who was just in my class and I barely know. And it’s not just for the next job—it can be for the next 10 years. I still get requests from students I worked with five or six years ago.”

Since this year’s participants are just getting started with their research, not many details have been determined, but Carmen Ciobanu, a junior in computer engineering who works closely with Teuscher, did a lot of work over the summer.

Ciobanu is helping with a collaboration between PSU and Johns Hopkins University where they are creating micro- and nanoscale chips. Johns Hopkins is creating the hardware, and students working in Teuscher’s lab at PSU are working on the software to program them. Ciobanu’s role was to create a tool that tells the software how to behave using Matlab, a software-writing program.

She explained that people in chip-making have been working to reduce the size of chips making them as small as possible while also making them as fast as possible. These are the chips that go into cellphones and other small devices people use on a daily basis. Most recently, engineers have explored making different three-dimensional components on a micro- and nanoscale.

“It’s really cutting-edge research and that goes back to what students can get out of [the program],” Teuscher said. “If you can be involved with that kind of cutting-edge research and you go into an interview and can talk
about these things, then those folks usually are excited and impressed.”

For Ciobanu, this was her first introduction to a position in the engineering field, and though it was technically not a job, she said she was there from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or later working on her project.

“I was there knowing that I’m part of a project, and we need to succeed to get results. Engineering is very self-oriented, even when working as a team or for a company or research in academia,” she said.

Even with this strong emphasis on results, Ciobanu was able to succeed and get a lot out of the program.

“I guess the best part was that I learned not to be scared and I learned how to go there and work for the benefit of the project and get results,” Ciobanu said. “I think this is a very important lesson that will definitely help me with my internship and my job in engineering in the future.”

Emilio Molina is another URMP participant and is working with fellow students to create a water purification system. Molina is a senior in mechanical engineering, and his team consists of Simon Fowler, a physics Ph.D. candidate, and Esteban Rodriguez-Ariza, a chemistry undergraduate student who is also a URMP participant. They are working with Dr. Jun Jiao, a mechanical engineering professor.

“We actually did a lot of work last academic year, but we ended up starting over [the design of the system] this fall,” Molina said. Instead of a batch of water sitting and being purified, they have a constant flow system— the water goes in contaminated and flows through the system, coming out clean. The interdisciplinary team plans to have a bench scale prototype for their water purification system by the end of this spring to present, which means a small system designed for testing before moving onto full size.

The URMP is open to any engineering student. Though many benefits can be gained from participation in the program, it’s still hard to find students willing to put in the time needed to do the research. About eight hours of work on the project are required each week in order for it to succeed, and that time can be spread out as needed to fit into the student’s schedule.

“For those that are really committed and really want to do it, this is the kind of program that really kicks off your career,” Teuscher said.

For more information on the URMP, including program eligibility, visit pdx.edu/cecs/undergraduate-research-mentoring-program.