Alumni Spotlight | November 2019
KU major: Engineering Physics, Class of 2014
Current occupation: Senior Medical Device Engineer
Research mentor while at KU: Distinguished Professor Judy Wu
Describe the undergraduate research/creative experience that you had while at KU:
I worked for six years between high school and undergrad to put my wife through college. During that time, I became increasingly passionate about doing research in nanotechnology. When I came to KU, I met with Distinguished Professor Judy Wu about a job opening she had for a part-time undergraduate researcher in her Thin Film and Nanoscience lab. Even though I had zero experience in nanotechnology research, she must have seen my passion or felt pity for me and let me join her lab. The time that I spent learning from her and doing research in her lab was the single most important aspect of my time at KU. Not only did it allow me to explore what it meant to do academic research, but it provided context and a practical application for what I learned in classes. Instead of just memorizing formulas in my classes and homework, I would get stuck on research problems and then learn through my coursework methods and skills to approach what I was working on in the lab. This practical approach was way more meaningful than just doing homework for the sake of getting a good grade. I spent an average of 10-20 hours per week fabricating and characterizing different types of sensors. While I didn't get the best grades in my classes, I was able to build on and leverage my experience in Prof. Wu's lab to do a research experience for undergraduates (REU) at Cornell, take a fully paid trip to do research over winter break in Israel that counted as one of my senior design projects, publish four journal articles that I was co-author on (including one as first author), and deliver a number of presentations. The research experience that I gained with Dr. Wu was a significant factor in getting admitted to 50% of the grad schools that I applied for, being awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, and for getting my first full-time job out of school.
Q: What do you think was the most important thing you learned while doing undergraduate research?
A: The most important thing that I learned while doing undergraduate research is the importance of being able to communicate clearly and effectively. I'm still learning, but it's something that I continue to strive to improve at. When you're talking to your mentor, you need to learn how to ask good questions and how to describe your results clearly and efficiently. When you're teaching new or younger students what you've learned, you need to know how to step outside of what you've learned to approach communication as someone who is seeing what you've learned for the first time. When you're presenting your research to either an academic audience during a research presentation or to a general audience for an outreach event, you need to learn how to read your audience so that you can tailor your communication style and approach so that everyone can learn and feel engaged. The most important part of science is being able to share what you've learned with others to teach them and get them stoked about something that they might not have thought about.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates who might be interested in doing research or creative scholarship?
A: Just try. Be persistent, and do your best. Figure out what you're excited about and get super creative on how you can get plugged in to research labs who are working on similar/related problems. Some labs will have funding to pay students, and some won't. Some labs are run by people with different values than you. Some professors will want you to work 50 hours per week on top of doing a full course load and homework. Other professors are kind, will pay you, are committed to seeing you grow, and care about you and your family. Figure out what's important to you and what you can deal with. Try to figure out what you want to learn and explore. This is also a super-efficient, low-risk way of practicing what grad school will be like. Try working with a professor or two or three, and learn what kinds of labs you enjoy working in so that you can tailor your grad school applications appropriately.
Q: Do you use any of the skills or perspectives gained doing research in your current occupation? How so?
A: My guess is that half or more of the reason why I got my first full-time gig out of grad school was because of one of the research projects I worked on in Prof. Wu's lab. It was clearly a deciding factor. My Ph.D. research was on developing actuators and sensors for soft robots (robots made out of rubber). While I developed a number of important, transferable skills during grad school, when I was in Dr. Wu's lab I worked on a biosensor project where we worked to reduce trauma induced by an implantable biosensor. In other words, we developed a sensor used to measure signals in the brain that did less damage to the brain than did current commercial counterparts. In grad school, I made swimming robots made out of rubber. In my current job, I work for a company that inserts sensors into tissue and is interested in reducing trauma. While I draw on the skills that I learned during my Ph.D. (developing actuators and sensors), a lot of the key foundational knowledge that I draw on is from my biosensor project with Prof. Wu.
Q: Many undergraduate researchers are making decisions about what to do after they graduate from KU. Having been in those shoes, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Do you have any advice?
A: Grad school can take so much from you. It's exhausting. It's an endurance event. You can be pushed to your very limits. I wanted to eventually start a company that used nanotechnology to help people and, to succeed at that, wanted to become a leader in the field of nanotechnology. To me, that meant getting a Ph.D. I could have gone straight into startups or industry and that would have been an awesome choice, but it's not the one I made. If you go into grad school, the most important choice you can make is that of your advisor. First, when applying to grad schools, choose a school in which there is more than one advisor that you would be able to work with. In other words, don't choose a school solely because of one advisor. If things don't work out with that one person, you need to have a plan B. Once you're admitted to a program or lab, talk to the students. Learn as much as you can about what your relationship with the advisor would be like. Most importantly, talk to their students on their own, outside of the lab, and away from the professor. One lab visit that I had, the students said, "yeah, he's great, this is fine" and then I went out for drinks with them later that night and they were all like "Run away. Don't do it." Also, listen to the students. Don't assume that things will necessarily be better for you if they're saying that there are huge red flags.