Over the summer, ten Berkeley Physics undergraduates became the first cohort of students to participate in hands-on research through the Pi² Summer Scholars Program. With generous funding from donors, each student researcher was awarded a stipend package in support of their work.
This new program is designed to increase research opportunities for undergraduate physics majors, especially those who might not have the financial means to support themselves while participating in research. The program also helps guide students through the often challenging process of finding a research position that fits their background and interests.
The Pi² Summer Scholars Program is a component of the Physics Innovators Initiative (Pi²), established in 2018 to enhance hands-on learning opportunities, update curriculum, and modernize student lab facilities for undergraduates.
“Involvement in research can be transformational for undergraduate students, “ says Berkeley Physics professor Feng Wang, who currently serves as faculty lead for Pi². “Research experience gives students an opportunity to develop practical skills, explore the unknown, and experience the thrill of discovery. It helps them recognize their potential as physicists.”
Mentors and Mentees
Each undergraduate participant spends the summer months working one-on-one with a mentor who is a graduate student or postdoc already involved in faculty-led research. In addition to opening up new avenues of opportunity for undergraduates, the Pi² Summer Scholar Program benefits mentors by giving them valuable experience managing projects, setting goals for research teams, and guiding student learning.
Gerardo Gutierrez, one of this summer’s mentees, is a senior who transferred to Berkeley Physics from community college in 2019. “I feel that I got into physics late in the game,” he says, “and finding a way to get into research seemed kind of intimidating.” He first met physics graduate student Shannon Haley at a campus research fair held online last year. She encouraged him to apply to the Pi² Summer Scholars Program. Shannon became his mentor and the pair worked together over the summer in the lab of James Analytis, Berkeley Physics professor and Chair of the department.
Their project involved the study of iron niobium disulfide, a material with strong potential for use in quantum storage applications. Haley taught Gutierrez how to grow the material in the lab, using a process known as chemical vapor transport, and then make changes to it by replacing small amounts of iron with atoms of cobalt and chromium. Their objective was to learn how these kinds of adjustments alter the material’s behavior at microscopic scale.
Gutierrez says he enjoys learning new lab and computational skills and applying them. “Once I have the material,” he explains, “I run some calculations to see if we have the kind of switching response we’re looking for. If not, we go back and change it, based on the calculations, to see what would work better.”
Recruiting Researchers and Future Leaders
Students interested in becoming Pi² summer scholars go through a two-step application process. First, they select projects from a list of opportunities offered by faculty and describe the reasons for their choices. Candidates are interviewed by potential mentors, and mentor-mentee partnerships are created based on mutual interests.
For the second step, with guidance from their mentor, each mentee writes a short research proposal. The mentor describes the project in detail by submitting a research plan and outlining how they will assist in the professional development of their mentee.
Each mentee also composes a brief leadership statement describing how they see themselves contributing to the promotion of scientific progress in the wider community. “We aren’t just recruiting good physicists with this program,” says Analytis, “we’re also recruiting future leaders.”
In his leadership statement, Gutierrez described how encouragement from his high school teachers gave him a sense of purpose and inspired him to pursue physics. “It made me realize physics was something I could base my life around,” he recalls. “That kind of encouragement can do so much, but is not something every student receives.” He has already begun giving back by returning to his high school as a paraprofessional educator.
Gutierrez notes that finding a research position through Pi² went more smoothly than trying on his own to find a professor whose lab was a good fit. “There are a lot of people looking for research opportunities,” he says. “The Pi² process gives undergrads more of a chance.”
Haley agrees. “It’s important to have a system like this in place. It can be really intimidating to just cold email a professor. And unwritten steps or unspoken rules on how to get a research opportunity can hold people back who would otherwise become very good researchers.” She also notes the importance of paid positions for undergraduates. “It means we’re no longer artificially weeding out someone just because they have to work to support themselves.”
Plans call for continuing the Pi² Summer Scholars program annually.
Read more about what's going on in the Department in the Fall 2021 issue of Berkeley Physics magazine.