Undergraduate researchers love the lab

Three chemical engineering students are getting a sneak peak into hands-on research as undergraduate research assistants.

Thanks to an undergraduate research opportunity, Katelyn Dahlke, Scott Meester, and Drew Sikkema are running experiments on polymer micro-emulsions under the guidance of Jennifer O’Donnell, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering.

Dahlke, a sophomore, first heard about undergraduate research when O’Donnell mentioned it to the chemical engineering learning community she was involved in. O’Donnell, an advisor for the group, encouraged students to contact professors to see if there were opportunities available in their labs for research.

Intrigued by O’Donnell’s research with polymers, Dahlke e-mailed O’Donnell and set up a meeting. She has been working for O’Donnell since her freshman year.

Drew Sikkema
Drew Sikkema

Sikkema, a junior, and Meester, a senior, joined the team later while looking for summer job opportunities in Ames. Meester has a passion for medicine, and chose chemical engineering as a first step into the medical industry. O’Donnell’s research in polymers has the potential for use in drug delivery applications.

Sikkema, who started working for O’Donnell last May, was enrolled in O’Donnell’s ChE 210 course. He requested work in her lab several times before she had an open position, and the perseverance paid off. “I found out pretty fast at career fairs that having this kind of experience is helpful for your career search,” Sikkema says.

In the lab, O’Donnell assigns and explains tasks, but her support as a mentor to the students has been even more valuable than her position as their supervisor.

“She takes the time to break things down, step-by-step, until you understand. But we joke, too, and talk about things other than school or lab work,” Sikkema says. Because of this, all three students are prepared for high-level lab coursework or elective polymer courses they might have otherwise hesitated to take.

Sikkema is partnered with a graduate student for his work in the lab, while Dahlke and Meester are assigned as partners. They are the only undergraduates in the lab who work independent of direct graduate supervision.

“When we’re in the lab, it’s just us. Dr. O’Donnell’s not in the lab supervising. There’s a lot of responsibility and trust, but the atmosphere is really relaxed,” Dahlke says.

O’Donnell supplies plenty of one-on-one instruction to prepare the students for projects, since much of the research deals with advanced polymer concepts undergraduate students don’t interact with until junior and senior level courses. To keep up to speed, each team participates in group research meetings and listens to presentations on their projects and progress in the lab. Graduate and undergraduates alike also meet with O’Donnell for weekly individual conferences, where they receive instructions or report on their progress for the week.

“She’s very approachable and flexible,” Dahlke says. “She understands that we’re students and we don’t know everything, but she still likes to have input from us about lab procedures.”

Undergraduate research helped guide all three of O’Donnell’s assistants through decisions about their futures. Dahlke, who originally planned to avoid the faculty path, has now decided to become a professor and pursue research projects of her own. This summer, she hopes to be part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates thanks to support and recommendations from the network of faculty, including O’Donnell, she connected with through undergraduate research.

Meester would like to work in a lab setting even more closely related to the medical industry, and possibly go back to school in a few years to become a doctor. Sikkema will participate in an engineering co-op with the Dow Chemical Company this fall.

“Until last semester, it was a toss-up whether I would go into law or out into the industry. This definitely helped settle me on a career in industry,” Sikkema says.

“I tell the students I tutor that they need to do this. The things you learn while working in a lab are priceless,” says Dahlke.