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From the Lab to the Marketplace
Research Experience for Undergraduates program showcasing the connectivity between research and commercialization at OSU-Tulsa
By Kim Archer
Assembling longer-lasting lithium batteries. Developing flexible materials for 3D printing of medical prosthetics. Creating new composites to protect astronauts in space from radiation.
Eleven undergraduate students from universities across the country had the opportunity to work on these and other research projects in the Helmerich Research Center at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa.
They were the first cohort of OSU-Tulsa’s Research Experience for Undergraduates, a nine-week summer fellowship on materials science and entrepreneurship. The focus was a perfect fit for OSU-Tulsa since it is the home of OSU’s School of Materials Science and Engineering and assists with research and development for several startup companies.
Materials science is the study of the structure of materials and the creation of new ones by combining two or more with different physical or chemical properties to create a composite that is stronger or more flexible.
While many colleges and universities offer summer research programs to provide undergraduates experience in a scientific discipline alongside professional researchers, the additional emphasis on entrepreneurship makes OSU-Tulsa’s program stand out.
“Our program is different from many other summer research programs in that we are trying to show students how a research concept is taken from the lab out into the commercial world. Research goes hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship,” says Ranji Vaidyanathan, Varnadow Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.
“We want to give them exposure to local companies and entrepreneurs so that they can appreciate how an idea can become a reality.”
Vaidyanathan and Pankaj Sarin, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, are the program coordinators.
Jonathan Thompson, an OSU-Tulsa senior majoring in mechanical engineering, says the interdisciplinary focus of materials science attracted him to the program.
“Materials science has a lot of disciplines, such as chemistry, physics and engineering, and I am interested in interdisciplinary work,” Thompson says. “The research projects were also a big draw for me.”
North Carolina State University student Jonathan Gillen said the focus on entrepreneurship was the reason he selected the OSU-Tulsa REU program.
“There are a lot of other REU programs out there, but this one has an entrepreneurial aspect that others don’t have,” says Gillen, who was selected to present his REU research poster at a national Council on Undergraduate Research symposium. “And OSU-Tulsa has great facilities to work in.”
To show REU students how research is being used by industry, the cohort toured Tinker Air Force Base outside Oklahoma City and NORDAM, an international manufacturing company headquartered in Tulsa that designs aerospace interiors and structures for major companies such as Boeing, Gulfstream and United Airlines. Much of the time, students worked on research projects with OSU-Tulsa faculty and graduate students at the Helmerich Research Center’s state-of-the-art laboratories.
“The REU program provides a unique opportunity for undergraduate college students to participate in the type of cutting-edge research typically reserved for graduate students,” says Howard Barnett, president of OSU-Tulsa. “It is a great example of how faculty at the Helmerich Research Center are advancing engineering education in Tulsa and across the country.”
Esther Sun, a student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, says the faculty’s enthusiasm and guidance helped her feel at ease.
“I was not expecting them to allow us to have so much access to the labs, especially since I am completely new to research. I was a little afraid I might break some of the expensive equipment,” she says. “But they were really open and willing to let you try things out and give you the experience because they wanted us to learn.”
Matthew Villareal, an OSU alumnus and co-founder of Infinite Composites Technologies in Tulsa, was one of several entrepreneurs who spoke to students about how his company benefited from its ties with OSU-Tulsa and its faculty.
“Dr. Vaidyanathan has been an invaluable resource for us,” he told participants. “He is an expert proposal writer, and our relationship with OSU-Tulsa provided access to research and development we otherwise would not have had.”
Raman Singh, associate dean of the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology at OSU-Tulsa and head of the School of Materials Science and Engineering, is enthusiastic about the future of OSU-Tulsa’s REU program.
"I am pleased that in its first year, the REU program at the Helmerich Research Center attracted students from across the U.S. and across disciplines,” he says. “I believe this fact speaks to the distinct focus of our program and the substantial quality of our faculty.”
Faculty expertise is key to an effective research and development educational environment, Singh says. And OSU-Tulsa faculty members are experts in entrepreneurship.
For instance, Vaidyanathan holds 16 patents and has developed six different products from concept stage to commercial stage including Aquacore™ and Aquacast™ water-soluble tooling materials commercially sold to Airbus, Boeing, Eurocopter and Lockheed.
Raj Singh, Williams Companies Distinguished Chair and Regents Professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering, helped create a sodium-sulfur battery used in the world’s largest battery storage system at the Hitachi Automotive systems factory in Japan and by American Electric Power. He holds 25 U.S. patents and has developed advanced ceramic composites being commercialized by GE for aircraft engines.
Other REU program mentors are similarly accomplished, including materials science and engineering faculty members Do Young Kim, Jim Smay and Nirmal Govindaraju, and mechanical and aerospace engineering faculty members Jay Hanan and Khaled Sallam. Craig Watters from the Riata Center for Entrepreneurship and the Spears School of Business was also a mentor.
As with most REUs, OSU-Tulsa’s summer fellowship was funded with a $405,208 grant from the National Science Foundation and co-funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Besides OSU, North Carolina State and Case Western, students represented Missouri University of Science and Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Kansas State University, Santa Ana College and Cameron University.
Vaidyanathan is anticipating building upon the program’s success with future sessions.
"We want to give students a sense of where that research goes once it leaves the university so that they understand the relationship between what they do here in the laboratory and the marketplace,” he says. “By giving them exposure to the commercial side, we are hoping they will become the next generation of entrepreneurs and business people who also have research experience to make their products better.”
Watch a video on OState.TV showcasing the REU visit to NORDAM: bit.ly/OSUTulsaREU
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Uploaded on December 1, 2016