View from the lab:
an insider’s guide
to undergraduate research
A large air table dominates a pale-green rectangular laboratory on the second floor of the Engineering Research Building. John Springmann climbs two wooden steps to access a tall piece of equipment called a microtester, which sits on the table. He carefully places a glass slide in a Petri dish, squirts in liquid pH buffer that he has dyed pink with food coloring, and sets the dish on top of the 45-degree mirror on the microtester. A large camera points at the dish, and Springmann studies the images on a nearby computer monitor.
He sees six circular hydrogels diffusing the pink liquid. On the computer screen, the hydrogels look almost quarter-sized, but without magnification, they are more like tiny, red pinpricks. The forces these little components exert as they expand—this is what Springmann is testing—could power microfluidic devices that automatically inject insulin into diabetes patients.
The type of testing Springmann is performing has never been done before. And, he’s doing it as an undergraduate at UW-Madison.
Springmann knew as a college freshman that he wanted research experience. So the engineering mechanics and astronautics student, now a junior, began actively seeking lab opportunities as soon as he arrived on campus.
Eventually, those opportunities led to his current independent research project, which focuses on microfluidic devices and hydrogels. A UW-Madison Hilldale Award, which includes $5,000 in total funding, is supporting his project.
Now, Springmann’s work is well under way. His experiences illuminate the value of undergraduate research, and he offers some advice about how toget involved with labs on campus.
Why do research as an undergraduate?
Springmann says he’s interested in research mostly for the lab experience. “At a school like this, research is what all the professors and graduate students do, so I think it’s important to see what really goes on in a lab,” he says. “I can see if I want to go to graduate school, what kinds of things I’d want do, and if I’d actually enjoy it.”
The interaction with faculty is also an important aspect of lab work. Engineering Physics Associate Professor Wendy Crone hired Springmann in the fall of his sophomore year to her solid mechanics lab. The connection with Crone helped Springmann to enter the Hilldale competition. “Wendy encouraged me and gave me some ideas,” Springmann says. “She thought the hydrogels idea was the most feasible, and I pretty much just went from there on my own.”
Though he is working independently on his project, Springmann is not alone in the lab with his project to test the forces in expanding and contracting hydrogels. “Our lab is really good with interaction between the grads and undergrads, which I think is great,” Springmann says. “It’s good that the graduate students are in the lab because I can always turn to them for advice.”
Springmann says his experience working as a research assistant before taking on his own project helped him to learn the research process. Now he applies what he learned previously from running tests and data analysis for the graduate students as a guide for his own research.
How do you get involved with a lab?
Developing an interest in a particular field is key. Springmann says check with department offices and approach professors for opportunities. “When you’re only a freshman or sophomore, you don’t know any professors—and I wouldn’t be comfortable going up to a professor and seeing if I can get involved in their research on the first day of class,” Springmann confesses. “But don’t be nervous. You’ve got nothing to lose, since professors are there to help the students. And if you know a professor’s research, you can approach them a lot better.”
Springmann says he got lucky in finding his initial lab position since Crone sent out an E-mail looking for an assistant. Faculty projects, where a student is hired to work on a project headed by a professor or graduate student, are a common stepping stone for students looking to develop their own work. Positions on faculty projects are paid or offer academic credit, and the work is important in making connections with faculty members, who can help students find support and inspiration for independent research. In addition, independent study is an option for motivated undergraduates. Students need to be in contact with engineering instructors and can receive academic credit for their work.
Though a Hilldale award is a unique opportunity, UW-Madison has other programs for enterprising undergraduates. Engineering honors programs require research credit. The UW-Madison Undergraduate Research Scholars Program is another option. URS helps first- and second-year students gain research experience by working with faculty; the program also offers opportunities for upperclassmen to become research fellows and oversee a group of undergrads in the scholars program.
Proposal writing—a major element of the research process—is something students can practice in outlets other than labs. Springmann is a member of the UW-Madison Zero-G Team, an engineering student organization whose members design experiments to be performed in a weightless environment. NASA selects teams to participate; in both 2006 and 2007, he was very involved in writing the successful UW-Madison proposal.
When developing his proposals, Springmann says reading lots of journal articles gave him a sense of the appropriate writing style. The proposal he wrote for the Hilldale award included an abstract of his proposed research, a review of literature already published on the subject, a description of plans for data collection and analysis, and a timeline for completing the project.
What do you do once you have a project?
“The big thing with research is: What do you do?” Springmann says. “You just have to start doing something.” For Springmann, that “something” meant actually making the hydrogels he planned to test. His connection to the faculty again was critical. Crone gave him an overview and he then talked to other researchers and researched the topic on his own. “You can’t buy hydrogels commercially,” Springmann says.
He’s been perfecting his technique since August. With gloves and goggles, he places an adhesive on a slide and injects a clear liquid mixture containing four chemicals under the adhesive. He then places a transparency “mask” he designed himself over the slide and sets it in a precise position under an ultraviolet light. He carefully places a cardboard box around the light and turns on the bulb, which casts bluish light. Twelve-and-a-half minutes later, several tiny hydrogels form in a ring where the light was allowed through the mask.
Springmann says one of the surprises in working in a lab is the need to build custom tools and components for experiments. “You have to really think about testing. What do you need to do; how can you accomplish that?” Springmann says. Everyday materials often come to the rescue; for example, he uses Scotch tape to hold the slide in place on the Petri dish while testing. “Simple solutions help in the short term,” he says.
He also says it’s important to not get discouraged if the research doesn’t yield the results you expected. Failed experiments are still useful, he says. For example, Springmann was expecting the hydrogels to exert more force as time increased, but his results were a bit off. To learn what was happening, he developed his strategy of using pink food coloring to watch the pH buffer enter the hydrogels.
Springmann encourages undergraduates to seek research experiences, whether through faculty projects or independent study. “Definitely get involved,” he says. “Research is something you can’t get in the classroom.”