Columbia Spectator | Special Issue

SEAS students work with professors to research cell membranes, high-tech gadgets

  • Cindy Ma / Senior Staff Photographer
    REACHING FOR RESEARCH | From left: Rohit Prasanna, SEAS '14, Brian Wu, SEAS '15, and Caroline Park, SEAS '16, are just a few students at the School of Engineering and Applied Science to work alongside faculty on research.

This story is part of a special issue examining the history and future of the School of Engineering and Applied Science in its 150 year. Check out the rest of the issue here.

What do augmented reality capabilities, cell membrane fusion mechanisms, and graphene all have in common? Along with sounding complicated, they’re also subjects of research projects by current undergraduates at the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Despite the time constraints of 24-credit course loads and extracurricular obligations, many SEAS students still manage to set aside time for research. While administrators do have a small pool of funds set aside to encourage faculty to take on students, the partnerships are mostly student-driven. On the whole, professors are as receptive as their students are eager, and don’t hesitate to populate their labs with undergraduates and grad students. The results of these partnerships speak for themselves. 

All About Cells

Caroline Park, SEAS ’16, is no stranger to research. Park’s high school accomplishments earned her an Egleston Scholarship—an undergraduate scholarship run by SEAS, named for the father of Columbia Engineering Thomas Egleston—and she’s kept up her momentum at Columbia. Though Park has settled on being an applied math major, her current research is of a more chemical nature.

Park is currently working with chemical engineering professor Ben O’Shaughnessy on two projects. The first involves looking at the mechanisms of stress fibers within cell skeletons, and the second is studying the fusion mechanisms of cell membranes.

Park’s interest in O’Shaughnessy’s research motivated her to get involved.

“I went to visit him and I really enjoyed the kind of work he was doing,” she said.

Though Park believes being an Egleston scholar contributed to her research position, she said it’s easy for any undergraduate to get involved with research.

“Usually all you need to do is shoot an email,” she said. “Especially if you’re planning to do a major in their field and you want to learn more about it.”

Park concedes that SEAS students may be at an advantage when it comes to working closely with professors.

“I think for engineering it’s a little easier because there are fewer students competing for the same spot,” she said.

A New Kind of Carbon

Rohit Prasanna, SEAS ’14, believes that trying out different interests through research is the best way to make post-graduation plans. “I tried to spread my research around in different areas … to try to get as much exposure as possible before settling on a subfield,” he said.

Prasanna’s current research with professor Chris Marianetti is focused on computational simulation of graphene, a one-atom thick layer of graphite that serves as the basic building block of all carbon allotropes. “The goal of the project is to be able to use purely theory to predict the properties of the material,” he said.

Though this particular project is required for his material science major, Prasanna has also worked on applied physics and applied mathematics department chair Ismail Noyan projects in his previous years at SEAS.

“I think it’s been pretty easy [to get involved],” said Prasanna. “Each time, I just emailed the professor and asked if there was any opening, and they usually got back to me with a positive response.”

Changing Reality

Brian Wu, SEAS ’15, is working on a more surreal scale. His research with professor Steven Feiner and two Ph.D. students is about the augmented reality capabilities of modern head-mounted displays, meaning he gets to work with technologies with technologies like Google Glass and Oculus Rift.

“The coolest part of my work is handling the latest augmented and virtual reality gadgets,” Wu wrote in an email.

Like Park and Prasanna, Wu had no trouble getting involved with research. “A lot of professors are great about research. I spoke with professor Feiner after class about my interest in his work, and he allowed me to join his lab with little experience. The work is usually flexible and open-ended,” Wu said.

However, he noted that securing funding can impede undergraduates looking to do research. 

“I know that a lot of students interested in research have difficulty securing funding, especially over the summer,” he said.

maia.bix@columbiaspectator.com  |  @MaiaClay4

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