The University of Alabama

Faculty Mentors Introduce Students to World of Research

Dr. Brian Fisher (right) mentors Steven Overheim as they conduct an experiment that could help change the future of alternative fuels.

Dr. Brian Fisher (right) mentors Steven Overheim as they conduct an experiment that could help change the future of alternative fuels.

 

By Kristi Payne

Students, with faculty mentoring, are planning projects for the Spring Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Conference.

The April 17 conference, in UA’s Bryant Conference Center, boasted a record 555 participants last year. The annual event provides a welcoming and competitive venue for undergraduates to showcase research findings, said organizers. Students have a chance to earn cash prizes for their projects but, more importantly, they garner experience in performing, presenting and defending their research. Students’ registration deadline is April 1.

The partnership between faculty mentors and students offers undergraduates a unique perspective.

“Normally, undergraduates only know what they see of me in the classroom, and that is just a small sample of what I do,” said Dr. Brian Fisher, UA assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “When a student does a research project with me, he or she gets to see what faculty members really do in our labs. They get a taste of what it’s like to do real, hands-on research and start to appreciate that what they learn in class does actually have real applications.”

Faculty mentors said it’s rewarding when that glimpse is what prompts a student to begin considering the possibility of pursuing graduate studies or, sometimes, a research career.

Dr. Carl A. Pinkert, vice president for research at UA, said that’s exactly what the conference experience is designed to do.

“Working with their faculty mentors, students gain a greater hands-on understanding in exploring what they have learned in the classroom, taking ideas to new levels,” he said. “The training/preparation conducted in advance of their presentations, along with the feedback obtained during meetings, is of tremendous value in crafting the next steps for each student.”

Sarah M. Barry, UA associate professor of dance, said the campuswide conference helps students learn how to confidently field questions about their projects from people whose main expertise lies outside the student’s field of study.

“They only have a certain amount of space on the poster board, or a certain amount of time in the presentation to get their ideas across, which gives them more experience with not revealing everything about their process, but being able to distill to the main concepts and most important points.”

Barry said both outgoing and more timid students can benefit from participation.

“When a faculty member has the opportunity to invite students into her world, I find that those students are more ready to jump in and engage differently from that point forward,” said Barry. “I also find that students who take the initiative to pursue opportunities such as this on campus are more inclined afterward to pursue other ways to get their work shown off campus. This experience often leads students to seek out ways to publish their writing or get their choreography shown elsewhere.”

This year, Fisher has two students working under his direction for the spring conference.

Steven Overheim, a junior from Atlanta, Ga., will conduct a study of the formation, growth and destruction of soot in a laboratory flame. Russell Hancock, a sophomore from Birmingham, will work with Fisher on a study of the ignition and heat-release characteristics of diesel and diesel-alternative fuels.

By passing a laser beam through the flame and recording light scattering caused by soot particles, Overheim will determine the effect of the molecular structure of various fuels on the evolution of soot, and he will isolate, to the extent possible, the fuels’ chemical effects on it. A better understanding of these aspects will lead to improved strategies for reducing and/or eliminating soot in diesel-engine combustion, and may also, the researchers said, provide insight into desired characteristics for alternative fuels.

Information obtained from Hancock’s project could aid in developing improved models of engine combustion that can result in cleaner and more efficient combustion, the researchers said.

Once the conference is over and the awards are presented, the student-mentor relationships that have been formed often remain intact.

“Mentoring students allows me to speak very specifically in recommendation letters about their interest in research pursuits, specifically their ability to create and plan out a project, incorporate faculty feedback and see it through to completion,” said Barry.

And Pinkert says that kind of personal investment is another component of UA’s commitment to championing undergraduate ambitions.

“Such student-focused opportunities represent a hallmark of the undergraduate experience at The University of Alabama,” he said. “We acknowledge and applaud the important role and commitment of our many UA faculty mentors in providing these opportunities for our students.”

More information about the conference is available at osp.ua.edu/UndergradResearch.html.