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School brings together summer undergraduate researchers

Six summer programs for undergraduate students are under the umbrella of the Doerr School of Sustainability, creating a new cohort across disciplines.

Summer undergraduate researchers, their mentors, advisors, and staff leads SURGE, SESUR, MUIR, CEE, and SUPER gathered on the Mitchell Patio for a welcome event June 26. (Photo credit: Ashleigh Reddy)

This summer, 80 undergraduate students are spending the summer working in labs, taking samples in the field, and learning new computing techniques through undergraduate research programs run by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and its affiliated institutes: the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy.

While some are pursuing passion projects, others are conducting research for the first time, thanks to support from six different programs that connect undergraduates with mentors, research tools, and professional development opportunities.

For rising Stanford sophomore Yuchen Li, a decision about his summer studies came down to where and how it would be carried out.

“I knew I wanted to do research this summer,” said Li, a Sustainability and Earth Summer Undergraduate Research (SESUR) student studying how the Southern Ocean responds to changing winds with Assistant Professor Earle Wilson. “I was debating between going off campus to do research at a national lab, and ultimately decided to stay here to get to know people in the departments better.”

In a school that includes expertise in oceans, civil engineering, environmental changes, energy, natural resources, geology, geophysics, social sciences, and more, getting to know the faculty is no small feat. But being part of these programs makes it approachable.

Every week, students from SESUR, Sustainability Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering Program (SURGE), Mentoring Undergraduates in Interdisciplinary Research (MUIR), Summer Undergraduate Program on Energy Research (SUPER), Civil and Environmental Engineering Summer Undergraduate Research Program (CEE VPUE), and Hopkins Internships - Summer Undergraduate Research Funds (HI-SURF) gather to hear lectures from different faculty members. They participate in field trips to local destinations like the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and attend workshops about applying to graduate school, improving communications, building resumes and CVs, exploring career options, and more. The students also have opportunities to socialize, from game nights and coffee hours to sporting events and cohort dinners.

“This year has been great for bringing together undergraduate researchers from all the programs as a community, and for them to learn about research outside of their own interest area,” said Jennifer Saltzman, assistant dean for professional development and community building at the Doerr School of Sustainability. “The programming for the students complements or maybe enhances the experience beyond the research that they are conducting.” 

Broad exposure

Most of the programs enroll Stanford frosh and sophomores and receive funding from the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE), with the exception of SURGE, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and comprises undergraduates from other U.S. institutions, especially those seeking a formal research experience for the first time. The program seeks to recruit students from underrepresented backgrounds to explore research paths within the field of sustainability. 

SURGE participant Linda Arnoldus is a rising senior in aerospace engineering with an astronautics concentration and mathematics minor who will be graduating in 2024 from Mississippi State University. She is working under Associate Professor Catherine Gorlé and postdoctoral researcher Tania Ferreira to model the contrails of hydrogen-powered aircraft, with the goal of determining their climate impact and learning how to mitigate effects. 

In addition to embracing the opportunity to do graduate-level research, Arnoldus also pursued the SURGE program to take advantage of its graduate school preparation resources, she said. Having exposure to so many disciplines has also been helpful.

“My experience with SURGE has been extremely fruitful and opened my eyes to all the areas of research I could engage in during graduate school,” Arnoldus said.

SURGE and SESUR students participate in weekly faculty lectures together, while students from MUIR, run by the Woods Institute for the Environment; SUPER, run by the Precourt Institute for Energy; and CEE VPUE, run by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, come together for weekly cross-disciplinary faculty lightning talks. HI-SURF students are based at Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey and make occasional trips to the main campus for events that span the six programs. 

Enriching experiences

Ingrid Ackermann, Environmental Systems Engineering ’24, is participating in HI-SURF to explore the biomechanics of whales’ filtration systems with associate Professor Jeremy Goldbogen and Professor emeritus Mark Denny. While this isn’t the first time she’s done research as an undergraduate, she has embraced the chance to dive deeply into something totally new.

“It’s a lot of exploratory literature review, designing novel experiments, and cutting PVC pipe in the machine shop to build a custom flow machine,” said Ackermann, who participated in SESUR in 2022. “A summer research program can be as much as you want to make of it.”

On July 14 and July 22, the students were invited to tour the Hopkins Marine Station and kayak in Monterey Bay. It’s important for them to see how a research station operates, Saltzman said, and the event was a highlight for many.

Staff and students in kayaks in Monterey Bay
Thirty-one participants across SUPER, MUIR, CEE VPUE, and HI-SURF took a tour of Monterey Bay by kayak on July 14 as part of cross-cohort program efforts to create community. SUPER Program Director Audrey Yau is on the left and Claire Morton is in the center. (Photo credit: Audrey Yau)

“My favorite memory from the MUIR program was a field trip where we went sea kayaking,” said Claire Morton, ’24, who is majoring in mathematical and computational science and minoring in environmental justice. Morton, who was a SESUR student in 2021 and MUIR this summer, is working to improve infectious disease modeling with Professor James Holland Jones. While she expected to bond with other students over shared struggles of research, she was happy to find that the program also prioritized community building and social opportunities, she said. 

“These are the kinds of things that enrich a student’s experience,” SUPER Director Audrey Yau said of the cross-program learning and social opportunities. “It helps students feel they’re a part of something and keeps them motivated through the summer. Research may be hard, it could be isolating, and ten weeks is a long time. Our research programs go beyond experiential learning and provide support systems in the faculty, mentors, staff, and peers.”

New school, new mission

Saltzman, who oversaw the SESUR program for the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences for seven years before joining the Doerr School of Sustainability in 2022, said bringing together the participants has also been positive for the program managers, who meet monthly to learn from each other: “It’s more than the sum of its parts. We have a bigger community and staff can be more efficient.”

While the SUPER program has been around since 2015, this year is the first to include cross-program educational components – and the same goes for the CEE VPUE and MUIR programs. Yau saw the launch of the new school in 2022 as an opportunity to make multidisciplinary learning a priority for the previously siloed undergraduate research efforts.

“The programs are evolving in the new school because there is a bigger mission for us now in terms of stewarding undergrads through what research and sustainability can look like,” Yau said. “When you do research, you realize one size does not fit all – a student may think, ‘This doesn’t fit me, so research as a whole isn’t going to fit me.’ The summer series shows there’s more to research out there than your own experience.”

Students examine various types of seaweed at the Hopkins Marine Station
CEE VPUE students Huilan Huang and Hywot Ayana examine various types of seaweed at the Hopkins Marine Station tour on July 14. (Photo credit: Audrey Yau)

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