Rising to the Challenge: Sustainable Energy Program Gives Students First Research Opportunities

Posted: November 24, 2021

During Tali Look’s first experience conducting research as an undergraduate at Ohio State, she made a quick first discovery — about herself. 

“Something very big you learn is how to be OK with not knowing what you’re doing, because with research you have to start sometimes with a shot in the dark,” says Look, a materials science and engineering student who will graduate at the end of this semester. “You don’t know what you’re going to find; it could be dead ends, and you have to go back a few steps.” 

She found the support to learn the new skill in the Research In Sustainable Energy (RISE) summer program, part of Ohio State’s EmPOWERment National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program. The 10-week, intensive RISE experience provides talented Ohio State undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to work on an independent research project related to sustainable energy in a supportive environment designed to develop and enhance their research skills. 

“It was definitely a big learning curve,” Look says, explaining how the research process is different than the more definitive facets of coursework or an internship. “With research, your goals are always changing depending on what you find.” 

Working with faculty mentor Jay Sayre, research associate professor of materials science and engineering, Look researched natural fillers that could potentially replace talc as a filler in a polymer matrix for the automotive industry. Sayre also is an assistant vice president in the Office of Research and director of innovation for the Institute for Materials Research. 

“Talc is great for increasing mechanical properties and lowering the cost of plastic parts, but it’s not sustainable for various reasons. I was searching for natural materials that have similar properties to talc but would decrease the environmental impact of these plastic parts,” she says. “The RISE program was excellent, and I learned so much about how to conduct a research study. I didn’t know how to properly use resources or conduct a literature review, so learning to do that was a huge professional developmental opportunity.” 

“RISE is a bridge program to PhD studies but also to the EmPOWERment program for current or incoming Ohio State students who might not have experience doing research. It is focused on underrepresented minority students,” says EmPOWERment Program Director Ramteen Sioshansi, professor of integrated systems engineering and affiliated faculty member of the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State. “One of the missions of EmPOWERment is to broaden and diversify STEM.”  

RISE students conduct research in the lab of an Ohio State faculty member with the support of an academic mentor and peer mentor. Students also participate in communication and research skill-building activities and enjoy community-building activities with a broader network of summer research program scholars across Ohio State. They present their research results at a campus-wide symposium at the program conclusion. 

Diane Boghrat, EmPOWERment program coordinator, says RISE is designed to create an environment for students where they learn through experience with a good scaffolding of support.  

“They’re not only doing research, but they have access to a larger consortium of other undergraduate research programs at the university,” she says. “RISE also offers professional development opportunities from how to apply to or finance grad school to how to do a literature review. It’s focused on skills pertaining to research, applying to grad school and more general life and professional skills like networking and communication.” 

While RISE participant Jeremiah Shum had conducted some undergraduate research previously, this program was a more immersive experience for him.  

The graduate student in agricultural communication, education and leadership was paired with Christian Blanco, assistant professor of operations and business analytics at the Fisher College of Business, to analyze the financial leverage of various companies and emissions trading schemes. 

“This research was outside of my realm of knowledge, so it was very interesting to learn a lot of new things,” Shum says. “Dr. Blanco was very nice and was also very understanding that my background with math and business was limited, so he helped me conduct the research in this new way to me.” 

One of the most helpful RISE professional development programs for Shum dealt with strategies for handling imposter syndrome. He saw its application not only in the RISE program, where he didn’t have a technical or a STEM background, but also in his master’s program, which he started after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice. 

“My experience was different. The imposter syndrome session taught about how you belong even if you aren’t similar to others in your research background or academic background,” Shum says. “Collectively, everyone offers unique perspectives. That really hit home with me.” 

Ohio State Sustainability Institute Faculty Director Elena Irwin, professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics, helped develop the RISE program, which she said gives students that opportunity to learn to value collaboration. 

“Solving our complex sustainability and energy challenges will require a new generation of leaders who have a firm foundation in the concept of working with peers who not only have expertise that crosses disciplines,” says Irwin, “but who also bring and respect insight from varying backgrounds and experiences.”  

RISE students will receive a stipend of $5000 to support their participation in the program. Incoming graduate students may be eligible for an additional travel grant up to $500. The deadline for students to apply for next summer’s RISE program is Feb. 6. Faculty members who wish to participate as mentors and submit proposals for research projects can do so by April 1. RISE is jointly funded by Ohio State’s Graduate School and Office of Diversity and Inclusion.   

For students: RISE details and application 

For faculty: Submit a RISE project proposal 

By Joan Slattery Wall, editor, Sustainability Institute at Ohio State