Undergraduates are Getting Published

Many ambitious students, working alongside faculty members in their labs, have been invited to coauthor papers for academic journals revealing research finds.

Research opportunities for undergraduates have blossomed at Rutgers, informally and through programs such as the Aresty Research Center at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. The School of Engineering, a participant in the Aresty Center, supports several of its own undergraduate research programs, matching students with faculty mentors to develop the skills for becoming successful researchers.

Although many students are pursuing research, several have gone a step beyond and published their research findings in academic journals as coauthors alongside their faculty and graduate student mentors. A taste for the research process can be acquired during a semester or a summer session, but the students pursuing publication of their work have worked for at least two terms, often more, in their professors’ labs. In gaining the respect of their mentors, they have defined a problem, investigated solutions, and communicated their findings to peers in their academic and professional fields.

Having published work is advantageous. It bolsters a resume and indicates to graduate admissions committees and corporate interviewers that students have the discipline and knowledge for immediate success. The article submission and peer review process also provides students with the kind of feedback unavailable through a test score or course grade.

Meet four students and their professors to learn about their research and the steps to get their findings published.

Arielle Gamboa and Prof. Jonathan Singer: Thermo Capillary Multidewetting of Thin Films

3D_Film_Coating_Lab_2659_DSC1838_v4.jpgWhen Arielle Gamboa began studying at Rutgers in 2015, she took an introductory engineering class taught by Jonathan Singer, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who generously shared his enthusiasm for nanotechnology. She wasn’t expecting the opportunity to work alongside Singer, who, like Gamboa, was also in his first year at Rutgers.

A two-month research stint during her first summer stretched into a three-year collaboration, leading to her being first author on a paper published in the Materials Research Society’s journal MRS Advances. The article explains a technique for creating finely patterned microscale features in thin metal and polymer layers that align perfectly with one another—a promising development for manufacturing affordable flexible electronics.

“He’s been a great mentor,” Gamboa says of Singer. “He’s always guiding us and asking for our input; we’re not just being told what to do. It’s a two-way conversation.”

Gamboa benefitted from Singer’s being a new professor, he believes, giving her and other undergraduates opportunities that later students might not get.

“I only had one graduate student in my first year, so that first group of undergraduates had a lot of responsibility,” he says. “They were asked to take on a graduate student level of participation a little earlier. They got a lot more one-on-one interaction with me in trying to push these projects forward.”

The process of preparing a journal article challenges students to write for a readership of experts—a requirement rarely expected of undergraduates, explains Singer. And feedback from peer reviewers transcends the letter grades for class papers.

“Gamboa had the dedication to get a project to the point where it was time to report it,” he says. “She was willing to put in that depth of effort.”

Seth Karten and Prof. Dario Pompili: Underwater Adaptive Sampling

Aquatic_Drone_2655_DSC1226_v3.jpgWhen he was in high school, Seth Karten liked to think of himself as a Renaissance man, studying history and politics along with physics, chemistry, and calculus. Even after narrowing his interest to science and engineering at Rutgers, he kept his expansive view of academics as he plunged into robotics research during his first semester at the School of Engineering.

“Robotics isn’t one field,” he says. “It has elements of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, and mathematics. It makes the interdisciplinary applied sciences and engineering major at Rutgers such a good fit for me.”

In the fall of 2017, Karten joined the lab of Dario Pompili, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, to address the problem that vexes developers of underwater drones or robots: the inability to ascertain their location underwater through use of global positioning system (GPS) satellites.

Karten’s research, supervised by graduate student Mehdi Rahmati, involved finding and using submerged landmarks to calculate a robot’s location. The task involved computer vision and artificial intelligence so that the robot could recognize viable landmarks and map out its area of coverage.

Karten and mentors Pompili and Rahmati published their results in the proceedings of OCEANS last fall. Sponsored in part by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the OCEANS conference brings together professionals in engineering, computer science, and oceanic science.

“Doing a research paper means being able to come up with an idea, develop it, and then do the work,” Pompili says. “It’s important to apply what you’ve learned.”

“Getting a scientific paper out there was a big step for me,” says Karten. “When you do projects, you’re coding or doing math. But when it comes to the paper, you have to show your results to the world.”

Daryll Munoz and Prof. Fuat Celik: Catalysts for Producing Hydrogen Gas

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If it’s becoming more commonplace for undergraduates to publish journal articles about their research, Daryll Munoz still breathes rare air. Munoz, who recently graduated with a degree in chemical and biochemical engineering, already has his name on two papers in prestigious chemistry journals, based on work he began as a rising sophomore enrolled in the Aresty Summer Science Program.

Munoz’s mentor, assistant professor Fuat Celik, credits his student’s achievement to a combination of developing his skills during two-and-a-half years in the lab and receiving additional guidance from graduate student Ashley Pennington. He also got some good breaks.

“Uniquely for him, he ended up working on two projects that wrapped up while he was a student; on both, his contributions were significant enough to rate co-authorship,” Celik says.

Munoz’s research centered on investigating catalysts for producing hydrogen gas to use as an emissions-free source of energy for vehicles. “The fact that Dr. Celik and Ashley thought my work was so robust that I could be part of the publication was awesome,” Munoz says. “Not many of my friends who are doing research get the same opportunity to be recognized for the work they did.”

The first project was published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Physical Chemistry C and the second in Elsevier’s International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.

Celik had conducted doctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, where he mentored six undergraduates. “I gained an appreciation for how much an undergraduate student who is motivated can contribute to a research project,” he says. “That’s the experience I wanted to recreate in my lab at Rutgers.”

When students graduate, publication experience helps them stand out. “Being a coauthor indicates that they have the ability to multitask,” he says. “Most people who are hiring know how difficult it is to publish a paper. If students have managed that as undergraduates, it’s a real plus for their applications.”

Keri Rickman and Prof. Rajiv Malhotra: Intense Pulsed Light Printing

MAE_Lab_2658_DSC1373_v3.jpgWishing to advance sustainability led Keri Rickman, who graduated this past May with a degree in mechanical engineering, to pursue a novel approach to paper recycling: “unprinting” office paper and reusing it in printers and copiers.

During the summer following her junior year and continuing into the fall, Rickman zapped printed paper with powerful pulses of light to coax toner to essentially fall off the page. Her research, supervised by Rajiv Malhotra, an assistant professor mechanical and aerospace engineering, was attempting to reduce the reliance on traditional paper recycling, which remains an energy-intensive, chemical-consuming, and pollution-producing process in converting discarded paper into pulp before remanufacturing it into paper.

Rickman appreciated the research experience, including the chance to use as her light source a sophisticated instrument designed to fabricate nanoscale printed electronics prototypes. But Malhotra wasn’t about to stop there. “From the beginning, Dr. Malhotra likes to focus on projects that can be published,” Rickman says. “As soon as we started achieving usable results, we started focusing on an article.”

And Malhotra had the perfect publication in mind: the Journal of Cleaner Production, known for addressing the topic of sustainability. Rickman, Malhotra, and graduate student Michael Dexter authored an article published this past summer. The journal submission is a solid addition to her resume, says Rickman, who has applied for jobs in industry and hopes to pursue graduate study after gaining work experience.

Malhotra sees something more important for Rickman in the publication experience. “When students publish something that is peer-reviewed, it’s reviewed by people they don’t know,” he says. “This is as unbiased as it can get. It gives them a degree of confidence that they can do original research and make original contributions that society accepts as important."