Illinois' bioimaging expertise attracts REU students for summer research program


Susan McKenna

“Without this REU, I might never have considered the University of Illinois for graduate school, and now I am,” said Mary Kramer, a rising senior at the University of South Carolina and a 2019 participant in the Frontiers in Bioimaging Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) at the University of Illinois.

Kramer is one of 10 undergraduate students who are living and learning on the Urbana-Champaign campus this summer as they explore the use of imaging technology in medical applications such as diagnosing and treating diseases, enhance their skills, engage in professional development, and prepare themselves for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduate school programs and future STEM-related careers.

The National Science Foundation created the REU program in the 1950s and provides funding for each REU site. The 10-week hands-on research program runs from late May through early August and offers undergraduate students a wide variety of subjects and university sites from which to choose.

At Illinois, the REU begins with “bootcamp” training that helps students reach a consistent level of knowledge in the multidisciplinary sciences and imaging they will be exposed to throughout the program. This helps bring the participants to a similar level of knowledge, as they come from broad disciplinary backgrounds spanning a wide range of experience and academic level from freshmen to seniors.

The REU is a unique experience for undergraduates, as it allows them to actively participate in ongoing research; learn how to make valuable contributions as part of a research team; gain experience in analyzing and presenting findings; create and make poster and oral presentations; hone technical writing skills and create research proposals, abstracts and manuscripts; and, on this campus, work side by side with faculty who have expertise in scientific imaging at Illinois, a world leader in biomedical imaging.

That reputation for excellence in bioimaging attracted more than one of the current participants.

“I took an imaging course during Fall semester of this past year … and I found it really interesting, but it was very focused on more large-scale imaging … radiology, ultrasound … and I saw that this program was also very focused on microscopy — very small-scale [imaging],” said Joshua Dupaty, a rising senior in Biomedical Engineering at Mercer University. “I wanted that kind of experience as well. I wanted it to be as diverse as possible, and I like how diverse the experience has been.”

Kramer said that, although she is engaged in research at her home institution, there “my research is more just coding. There’s not a lot of hands-on stuff.”

Several students said they chose this particular REU at Illinois because of the reputation of the faculty mentors, the Grainger College of Engineering, and the University of Illinois, as well as the program’s foundation in Bioengineering.

Jonathan Myers said he “was looking at REUs that had aspects where we could look at tissues and how individual cells behave with any kind of stimuli. In particular, I really like nerve cells and I’m interested in modeling associated with these kinds of cells. So, being able to image and being able to run experiments on these cells so that we can use them to develop mathematical models was something I wanted to be able to look at,” said the rising junior in Biomedical Engineering and Biomathematics from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

Disha Patel, rising senior in Biomedical Engineering and Physics at the University of Miami, had more than one option for Summer 2019. “It was more between different internships or REUs,” she said. “In the end, I chose to do this REU because I had an internship experience last summer, and I wanted to essentially [choose what would help me] decide what I was going to do after school. I really didn’t know if I wanted to go into industry, if I wanted to go to grad school.”

Participants in the 2019 bioimaging REU at Illinois come from universities across the country that are as close as Terre Haute, Ind., and as far away as Puerto Rico.

Marisabel Colon, a rising junior in Chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, said she had reservations about going so far away from home for this summer research experience, but she soon discovered the benefits. “I applied to this program to see how it would be to be away from home, because I’m from Puerto Rico and it’s a different language and it’s a big barrier,” she said. “So I wanted … to see if I was really interested in doing research, especially in another language and away from home. The program is really good, because it’s shown me how to write grants, how to do a good poster presentation, and it helped me to overcome my fears.” And she said she’s fortunate because one of her graduate student mentors for the Illinois REU also comes from Puerto Rico.

For Dupaty, the program also exposed him to fields of study he hadn’t thoroughly explored yet. “My major is biomedical engineering, so I’m very used to medical devices, design and prosthetics, that kind of research,” he said. “But being in a neuroscience lab [at the Illinois REU], I’m learning cell culture and techniques and all these different kinds of imaging modalities. That’s been really interesting, because it’s broadened my field. Before this program … I feel like I would have never considered going into a neuroscience program or doing something very focused on imaging.”

At this point in their academic careers, many of the REU students said they would not expect to be doing the high level of hands-on research or experience the direct mentoring from research faculty and graduate students. Yet the REU initiative is rooted in providing these types of opportunities while it also helps the students gain a professional edge toward graduate school applications and future endeavors in academia and industry.

“I expected to learn about different methods of doing research than what I do at home,” said Kramer. “[In the REU] I get to do MRI scans every week, which is really cool and something I didn’t expect to be able to do as an undergraduate. … [And] I’ve gotten to network with a lot of people here and learn more about this program, as well as graduate programs in general.”

Patel said that, as a first-generation American, she hasn't had the kind of guidance or experience she needed to fully understand graduate school and what makes a strong application. “I really wanted to experience what it would be like to be a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D., what research would look like day to day, and essentially how I could apply and what would make my application stand out from others — for which this program is really helpful,” she said. “And we’ve already been notified about grants and different funding and how being a Ph.D. student works, [all of ] which I did not know before.”

In 2019, any interested undergraduate may select from more than 720 REU opportunities listed on the NSF website. There is a special emphasis on recruiting historically minoritized students as participants, and each site creates its own application process. For the bioimaging REU at Illinois, faculty members review and select participants based on academic performance, letters of recommendation, and each student’s potential to have a broader impact in bioengineering and related fields.

For the past five years, the bioimaging REU at Illinois has provided participants with a broad view and a specific research focus in how biological discoveries are directly attributable to imaging and how medical needs drive engineering solutions. The program also directly addresses the need for support and mentoring to help attract and retain historically marginalized students and help them transition to engineering graduate degree programs. Ninety percent of students from the previous four bioimaging REU cohorts at Illinois entered graduate school, and eight of the 40 are currently enrolled at Illinois in Bioengineering, Material Sciences and Engineering, Neuroscience, and Mechanical Sciences and Engineering.

Students who choose not to pursue graduate studies still gain enrichment in technical skills, professionalism and career readiness. Toward the end of the summer program, students in the current Frontiers in Bioimaging REU will exhibit their enhanced skills and knowledge as they give poster and oral presentations they have been working on almost since Day 1 and participate in professional development workshops. It is all part of the Illinois Summer Research Symposium (ISRS), an annual event sponsored by the Graduate College that showcases student research from a dozen summer programs conducted on the Illinois campus. The ISRS is held July 18 and 19 at the i-Hotel, and the presentations are open to the public.

The ISRS provides a valuable experience in communicating the science, and it serves as preparation for the pinnacle event that allows REU students access to a wider audience. Most of the students will reconvene with their REU cohort in mid-October in Philadelphia. There they will give oral and poster presentations in front of thousands of their peers and research faculty as part of the annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), the premier association for biomedical researchers.

The Frontiers in Bioimaging REU is supported by the Department of Bioengineering and is coordinated and implemented by co-principal investigators Andrew Smith, associate professor in Bioengineering and associate head of undergraduate programs for the department, and Marina Marjanovic, teaching associate professor in Bioengineering. Also supporting the REU as Bioengineering mentors and research PI's are: Catherine Best, Rohit Bhargava, Stephen Boppart, Wawrzyniec Dobrucki, Martha Gillette, Michael Insana, Dipanjan Pan, Pablo Perez-Pinera, and Brad Sutton. These faculty members not only represent bioimaging expertise on the Illinois campus but also cross-disciplinary appointments in areas such as cancer, medicine, chemistry, neuroscience, nanotechnology, electrical and computer engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, materials science and engineering, physics and biophysics.

"I really like the interdisciplinary aspects of the program," Dupaty said. "So, along with Bioengineering, I feel like there are a lot of different departments involved, like ECE, Neuroscience. Right now, I’m in a neuroscience lab, and it’s just not an experience that I would have had otherwise."