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VCU's Dean’s Early Research Initiative Gives High School Students a Real-World Engineering Research Experience

Photo: The May 16 DERI completion ceremony celebrated the achievements of the 2016-17 cohort. The event was also the induction of next year’s DERI fellows.

VCU's Dean’s Early Research Initiative (DERI), which brings high-achieving high school students into VCU labs and lets them dig into real-world engineering research through one-year fellowships, continues to grow in popularity and make its mark on the wider research community. The 2016-17 DERI graduation ceremony held at the School of Engineering in May showcased the accomplishments of the year’s cohort — at 19 members, its largest to date. Two days later, six DERI fellows received honors at the Virginia Junior Academy of Science Research Symposium.

“Students emerge from DERI with significantly greater confidence in their ability to perform research,” said Afroditi V. Filippas, Ph.D., associate dean of undergraduate studies in the School of Engineering. “They have a substantive experience that they might not otherwise have been able to have. In addition, these students develop teamwork, communication and leadership skills in a real-world setting.”

Once accepted into the program, DERI fellows embark on a 60-hour immersive summer research experience, followed by at least four hours of research each week throughout the school year. Students receive up to $200 to participate in a regional scientific event and may also apply for need-based travel allowances to attend a scientific conference. DERI fellows work alongside graduate student and postdoctoral mentors and faculty advisers. The graduate mentors typically propose the projects, which are designed to give high-achieving high school seniors a challenging research project — and possibly a peer-reviewed publication.

“The success of the DERI program reflects the fact that these students contribute to the work being done in our research labs,” said Lorraine Parker, Ph.D., director of diversity and student programs at the School of Engineering.

In her introduction of the DERI program at the graduation ceremony, Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Engineering and Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Chair in Biomedical Engineering, stressed the importance of the fellows’ contributions to the research mission of their laboratories. “The DERI fellows bring fresh insights to their work that impact innovation in unexpected ways,” she said. “DERI fellow Brandon Ranly described the layers of color in the sky to his adviser, Gregory Triplett, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate studies and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, as ‘a marriage of art, science and engineering,’ which is a fresh way of thinking about how spectroscopy lets scientists see color at the nanoscale.” Dean Boyan stressed that these interactions are made possible by a long-term investment in a research experience, not just a one-time, short exposure typical of many high school programs.

Tassos Karles, a 2016-17 DERI fellow, developed an inexpensive inkjet-fabricated antenna that operates within the 400-700 MHz television band. His design produced an effective antenna with a small enough surface area to make inkjet printing a viable fabrication method. “Overall, the research was a success and the final antenna receives around 10 television channels,” Karles said. He said DERI honed his research and writing skills and stimulated his passion for engineering. “In fact, I have decided to major in electrical engineering at VCU starting next fall,” said Karles, who has received a VCU Presidential Scholarship. He will be part of VCU’s Honors College and the School of Engineering’s Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program.

The DERI completion ceremony celebrated the achievements of the graduating fellows with an expo-style display of research posters and opportunities for the students to present their work to students, faculty and guests. The event was also the 2017-18 cohort’s formal installation into DERI’s elite ranks, a “reveal” where the rising high school seniors discover who their mentors will be and what research project they will be working on.

Six DERI students’ research projects were presented at the 2017 Virginia Junior Academy of Science (VJAS) Research Symposium, held May 16-18 at VCU. The VJAS symposium is an annual convention of science teachers, students and professionals from every region of the commonwealth. Students are selected for the symposium from more than 1,000 entries, based on papers written to the rigorous standards of peer-reviewed scientific journals. The following DERI projects placed in the competition:

DERI Fellow: Kevin Bender
Project: Detecting Community Structure in Multi-attributed Social Networks
Graduate Student Mentor: Hung Nguyen
Faculty Adviser: Thang N. Dinh, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Computer Science
First Place, Math, Statistics and Computer Science A

DERI Fellow: Ashwin Chetty
Project: Electrospun Nanofibers for Tissue Engineering and Drug Delivery
Graduate Student Mentor: Mike Lancina
Faculty Adviser: Hu Yang, Ph.D., Qimonda associate professor, Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering
Third Place, Engineering A

DERI Fellow: Alex McQuilkin
Project: Combined Similarity and Association Measure for Biomedical Text Mining
Graduate Student Mentor: Sam Henry
Faculty Adviser: Bridget McInnes, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Computer Science
Third Place, Math, Statistics and Computer Science A

DERI Fellow: Kaan Sahingur
Project: Examining the Use of Live Fresh Allograft Versus Alloblock as a Bone-Graft Substitute in Rabbits
Postdoctoral Fellow Mentor: David Joshua Cohen, Ph.D.
Faculty Adviser: Zvi Schwartz, D.M.D., Ph.D., associate dean for strategic initiatives and professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering
Third Place, Engineering B

DERI Fellow: Krystyna Cios Project: Smart Garment for Continuous Health Monitoring
Graduate Student Mentor: Umar Hasni
Faculty Adviser: Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Honorable Mention, Engineering A

DERI Fellow: Tassos Karles
Project: Cost-Effective VHF and UHF Antennas for High-Definition Digital TV
Graduate Student Mentor: Ryan Green
Faculty Adviser: Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Honorable Mention, Engineering B

The DERI program has seen dramatic growth since its founding in 2014, when DERI had 10 applicants from just one high school. Next year’s cohort of 30 fellows was selected from an applicant pool of 56 students from 26 high schools.

“Since we began DERI in 2014, the number of high school students applying has tripled in size,” Parker said. “This demonstrates the desire of those students to participate in actual research projects.