It’s been a productive 10 years for Yogesh Vohra, Ph.D., and his summer research program in the Department of Physics. But still he was worried when his program came up for site renewal by the National Science Foundation (NSF) earlier this year.

Alcorn State University student Daniel Johnson, left, is one of nine students who were selected nationwide to participate in the Research Experience for Undergraduates summer program. The program, now in its 10th year, is run by Physics Professor Yogesh Vohra.

“After 10 years of continuous support by NSF, the programs are reviewed critically for their impact,” Vohra says. “It was nice to get over that hurdle and keep it going.”

The NSF did award a $312,200 continuation grant supporting the program Vohra directs at UAB, the Research Experience for Undergraduates-Research Experience for Teachers (REU-RET). The grant supports 36 undergraduates and eight high-school teachers for summer research on the UAB campus through 2011. Joseph G. Harrison, Ph.D., of Physics, is the co-principal investigator.

Experiences for undergrads
This summer the nine students and two teachers enrolled are focused on experimental and computational materials research for undergraduate students. Each student is assigned a faculty mentor who assigns the projects, and they attend seminars on scientific communication and ethics in research.

“We’re trying to bring in students with diverse backgrounds, such as physics, chemistry, materials science, biological sciences and engineering. We sometimes even get students from applied math,” Vohra says. Student recruitment efforts also target women and under-represented minorities.

Equally diverse are the faculty like Alan Eberhardt, Ph.D., in biomedical engineering, and Derrick Dean, Ph.D., in materials science and engineering, who develop the projects for the students.

“I think that’s a unique thing UAB offers,” Vohra says. “We can bring in students and expose them to high-risk/high-rewards summer research projects from a multitude of backgrounds.”

Student research projects include microelectronic materials, high-pressure materials research, thin film growth and characterization, nanomaterials, laser materials, bioceramics and biopolymers, planetary materials, modeling of gas phase chemistry and surfaces in materials growth and computer simulation of materials.

“Our emphasis is on high-risk research,” Vohra says. “We don’t want the students to feel like they are doing a project they could do reading from a textbook. We want to give them projects that are      cutting-edge.”

Vohra says UAB has benefited from the development of intellectual property though the program. At least 20 percent of participants eventually publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, and almost 40 percent present at a national meeting. Some attend UAB’s Graduate School and continue their research.

Experiences for teachers
The Research Experiences for Teachers component provides two Birmingham-area teachers with an opportunity to participate in open-ended research projects, along with REU participants, under the direction of the faculty.

Teachers use their current scientific understandings, abilities and interests to make gains in intellectual professional growth, and they concentrate on one project. They also attend the professional development seminars on UAB campus and provide a presentation on their research findings to UAB faculty.
Vohra says he is happy with the progress of the program, and he praises faculty for their efforts in making it a success.

“Competing for funding at the national level is tough,” he says. “A big reason we were successful is due to our faculty’s innovative research projects that provide interdisciplinary research training to students.”