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N.M. Tech Offers Summer Research Program for Undergraduates, Feb. 13, 2008

by Valerie Kimble

SOCORRO, N.M., Feb. 13, 2008 – Hey, undergraduates – how would you like to spend nine weeks working on a hands-on summer research project, live on campus for free, earn four college credits and get paid to boot?

It’s possible, thanks to the efforts of a New Mexico Tech assistant professor of chemistry and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF has renewed a grant written by Dr. Michael Pullin to fund a summer program for undergraduate research for the next three years. The program began in 2005.

For application materials and additional information about the program, visit the REU webpage: http://www.nmt.edu/~reu.

Also providing funding are New Mexico Tech President Daniel H. López, Vice Presidents Ricardo Maestas and Peter Gerity, and Graduate Dean David B. Johnson. The Department of Defense, New Mexico EPSCoR, and the National Cave and Karst Research Institute provide additional program funding.

The “Interdisciplinary Science for the Environment” program begins June 1 and ends on August 2. All participants will be given free on-campus housing, a food allowance, reimbursement for travel expenses, field trip opportunities, and a stipend of $3,800.

Free on-campus childcare and family housing are available for participants with families. Students will also earn academic credit. The deadline for applications is March 31.

Pullin said he is hoping to receive applications from undergraduate students at colleges that lack the necessary facilities or resources for real-world research opportunities.

In the past, 60 percent of the participants were from under-represented minorities. “We’re shooting for 75 percent and above this year,” he said.

New Mexico Tech is collaborating with four other schools to attract participants – New Mexico Highlands University, Northern New Mexico College in Española, San Juan College in Farmington, and Diné College in Shiprock and Tsalie, Arizona.

“We have enough funding for at least 12 students this year,” said Pullin, adding that as many as 16 New Mexico Tech faculty are involved as research supervisors. On tap for this summer are eight, interdisciplinary research projects with faculty in the departments of Biology, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Earth & Environmental Science.

“All of the projects will examine environmentally related issues,” Pullin said. “Some of the projects are hard-core environmental science; others concentrate on environmentally-related applications.”

For instance Dr. Michael Heagy, Chemistry Department, and Dr. Paul Fuierer, Materials Engineering Department, are spearheading a project to develop a new type of solar voltaic cells.

Dr. Tom Kieft of the Biology Department also will team up with Dr. Penny Boston, from Earth & Environmental Science, on a study of microbial life in some of New Mexico’s many caves.

Pairs of students work closely with faculty and graduate students in interdisciplinary teams according to the subject areas needed to carry out a specific project and their own research interests. One of the goals of the program is to teach undergraduates to cross traditional academic boundaries.

“This does happen in the real world, especially in fields as complicated as environmental science, but it’s difficult to teach that concept in the classroom,” he said.

Pullin’s own research is a study of carbon and nitrogen cycling in soils at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, and how the process is connected to rainfall and the water cycle. Pullin, a chemist, collaborates with a biologist, a geologist, and an hydrologist to do this.

“When I was an undergraduate, I had to wash glassware for a year just to get into a research lab, let alone get paid for it,” Pullin said. “So for me, the best part of the program is seeing students get to work on real-world research.”

Pullin, an Ohio native, received his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry in 1999 from Kent State University. He spent two years as an NSF postdoctoral fellow at MIT, followed by two years as a visiting assistant research professor at the University of Notre Dame before joining the Chemistry Department at Tech in 2004.

“One of the great things about New Mexico Tech is the deep level of involvement undergraduates have in our research programs,” he said.

“We’re able to give students the experience of attending a big-name private engineering or tech school at the price of a state-supported university, which is very unusual,” Pullin said.

-- NMT --