Idaho has developed a national reputation as a summer destination: challenging whitewater, beautiful hiking and biking trails, and, more recently, great summer research opportunities.
Idaho universities attract dozens of the best and brightest high school, undergraduate and graduate scholars from across the state, nation and beyond every summer to engage in world-class research. Thanks to a number of state and federal programs, these students get to work side-by-side with professional scientists and researchers in science, technology, engineering and math fields, social sciences and the humanities.
So what’s in it for you? Plenty. These future engineers, biologists, physicists, chemists and social scientists are working on solutions to real-world problems like foiling computer hackers, discovering more effective ways to treat cancer, learning how to clean up our water, helping us understand climate change, analyzing the effects of immigration policy and creating better batteries for our electronic devices.
Many of these research programs are hosted by Boise State University, which has become a hub of nationally designated initiatives to address the grand challenges of our time. The university offers four National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates, an impressive number for one university. Emphasis areas include raptor research, software security, mathematics and energy.
Other summer programs are funded by the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the U.S. Department of Education, the American Chemical Society and more.
While many of the students who participate in these experiences are from Idaho universities and colleges, others hail from institutions as diverse as U.C. Berkeley, Baylor University, Harvey-Mudd College, St. Olaf College and Carnegie Mellon University.
In addition, high school juniors will gather from across the state for Idaho Science and Aerospace Scholars, a highly competitive program funded by the Idaho Department of Education and NASA.
Here are a few examples of what’s happening this summer at Boise State:
• An Emmett High School concurrent enrollment student is testing properties of carbon nanotubes to help in the creation of a carbon nanotube aerogel expected to be very strong, able to withstand extreme temperatures, and able to conduct electricity, providing many industrial applications for the future. Her work with chemist Kevin Ausman is funded by the American Chemical Society.
• A mathematics project focuses on the design and analysis of efficient search techniques, with the goal of preventing cyber attacks based on data-mining and computation searches for passwords and cryptographic keys. Student researchers are from Harvey Mudd College and Pomona College, working with math professors Liljana Babinkostova and Marion Scheepers.
• A Vallivue High School physics teacher is working with Janelle Wharry of the engineering faculty to understand how radiation damages advanced structural steels. New radiation-tolerant materials must be developed prior to the construction of advanced, next-generation nuclear power plants.
• A student from Queensborough Community College in New York is working with engineering professor Peter Müllner to build mechanical devices at the nanoscale. The project uses magnetic shape-memory alloys to copy nature and substitute in a much more energy-efficient way for machines.
• A Boise State sophomore who transferred from a California community college is working with 2D materials such as graphene to determine how different chemicals alter cell growth and the resulting electrode signals. This work could open doors to treatment for people with neurological disorders. Her mentor is engineering faculty Kurtis Cantley.
• A first-generation college student from Boise is working with political scientist Ross Burkhart to understand the factors influencing the under-representation of women in state legislatures in the northwestern United States. The work is funded by the McNair Scholars Program.
• Materials scientist Lan Li is working with a Carnegie Mellon University student to design high-performance, cost-effective and environmentally friendly thermoelectric materials that can convert waste heat into electric power.
Each of Idaho’s other institutions of higher education has its own great stories to tell.
A bonus of these summer programs is the chance to work in an interdisciplinary setting, where advances in one field, such as engineering, can benefit work being done in another, such as biology or chemistry. Students also make connections that could one day turn into professional partnerships.
Summer research on such a grand level gives a whole new meaning to “How I spent my summer vacation.” In addition to the joy of rafting, arts and scenic beauty that define our state, these students also will take away an enhanced passion for inquiry and discovery.
I’d like to invite each of you to meet these students and learn about their work. As part of the Idaho Conference on Undergraduate Research (academics.boisestate.edu/icur/), students will present their work at a research fair (poster session) from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, July 30, in the Student Union Simplot Ballroom on the Boise State campus. It’s free and open to the public. Please join us.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.