Undergraduates get ‘mini-grad school’ research experience

REU participants Rachael Koehler, junior biological engineering major at the University of Arkansas, left, looks over research with Mohera Narimetla, Tech senior chemical engineering and math major.

COOKEVILLE – Aspiring engineers and scientists from all over the country came to Tennessee Tech’s campus this summer to participate in an immersive and fulfilling research experience.

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates: Immersive Research in Energy generation, Storage/conversion and power Transmission (REU-IREST) 10 week program gave students in electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering, along with chemistry, mathematics and other related disciplines an opportunity to experience a “mini grad-school.”

“The Tennessee Technological University REU-IREST Site focuses on introducing cutting-edge energy technologies to aspiring engineers and scientists,” said Indranil Bhattacharya, principal investigator of the project. “The proposed collective research topics embody challenges related to renewable energy harvesting, storage and distribution that will impact the quality of life for 21st Century people and train future scientists and engineers for careers critical to achieving energy independence of our nation.”

Bhattacharya and co-PI Joe Biernacki offered workshops on topics pertaining to effective research, attributes of a good researcher, interpreting data and information effectively, efficient record-keeping, developing reporting and writing skills, effective dissemination of results, qualities of an excellent presenter, ethical decision making and professional growth and development.

This was the second year of the REU being held at Tech, with a total of 21 students from New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee.

“This is a really good opportunity for undergraduates to take because it’s during the summer and you can work at your own pace,” said participant Mohera Narimetla, Tech chemical engineering and math senior.

Narimetla and fellow participant Rachael Koehler, a junior biological engineer major from the University of Arkansas, worked on research related to biomass pyrolysis, the thermal decomposition of biomass occurring in the absence of oxygen.

“There are many methods of doing it, but we are approaching it a different way,” Koehler said. “How can we optimize certain things and make it better?”

For Evan Kixmiller, a Tech senior mechanical engineering major from Smyrna, it was an opportunity to research sodium ion batteries.

“Lithium ion is interesting, but sodium ion is more interesting because there’s not much known about it,” he said.

Michael Girard, a junior physics major attending Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, chose Tech’s REU site because it offered a lot more than other places.

“I want to do more research,” he said. 

His area of research was in solar cell modeling, a subject he admitted he knew nothing about when he began the REU experience in June.

“This is my first REU and first research position,” he said. “I’m very lucky to work with Dr. B (Bhattacharya).”

As part of the experience, students toured Nissan North America Vehicle Assembly Plant in Smyrna. Last year, they toured Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“(Those trips) are arranged to expose the students to energy-related career opportunities and collaborations,” Bhattacharya said.

Students last year noted how the experience shaped their future and gave them insight into how to conduct research.

“Tech’s camp is unique because it involves faculty and graduate student mentors from different engineering departments (electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering) working together in close collaboration in energy-related research areas,” Bhattacharya said.

Students also noted how the hands-on experiences and explanations of interpreting data was helpful.

For more information about Tech’s REU-IREST, visit https://www.tntech.edu/engineering/research/cesr/reu-irest/index.php.

Evan Kixmiller, left, Tech senior mechanical engineering major, talks with fellow REU participant Michael Girard, junior physics major studying at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

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