For Savvy Undergraduate Researchers, the Sky is No Limit

Written by: Tracey Regan,
From the insides of cells, to the streets of Newark, to experiments in the ionosphere, undergraduate researchers at NJIT are pushing boundaries.

Joshua Katz spent the summer researching the ionosphere, a region in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere that stretches more than 600 miles from the planet’s surface. Soojin Kim focused deep inside the human body, testing methods to grow healthy cells to cure diabetes. Basma Abukwaik took to the streets of Newark to assess residents’ willingness to connect with health care providers over smartphones.

For NJIT students, the ideas that spark research projects are as diverse as they are. What they share is the determination to find laboratories, mentors and funding, and the imagination and skill to apply technology to daily problems, using the resources around them. Over the summer, more than 130 undergraduates, including students such as Katz, Kim and Abukwaik came back to campus to do just that. As part of the university’s Undergraduate Research and Innovation (URI) summer session, they were backed by a range of sponsors – the URI program,  NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Hearst Foundation, Capital One Bank, PSEG and the James Stevenson and Family Foundation, to name a few – and worked with more than 70 NJIT faculty and research staff members.

And now budding entrepreneurs will get another shot at funding, as the Provost’s office solicits proposals for the fall round of URI grants. “Whether it’s an app you’re designing, a device you’re inventing or fundamental scientific research you’re helping to rethink, start the process by sending us your ideas,” says Atam Dhawan, vice provost for research and head of the URI program. 

Members of NJIT's ham radio club

Eclipse Party 600 Miles High

Just before the start of his junior year, Josh Katz ’17 (above, right) received an email from a stranger, a recent Ph.D graduate from Virginia Tech who was joining NJIT that fall as an assistant research professor and hoping for a tour of the campus K2MFF Amateur Radio station. A tour, an intriguing pitch and a year later, Katz ’17, a computer science major from Fair Lawn and member of the student ham radio club, is now a key player in a groundbreaking research project conducted by Nathaniel Frissell that is raising the profile of amateur radio in space science. He signed on immediately. “Dr. Frissell was talking about a whole lot of numbers and massive data sets – how could I say no!” Katz recounts. He spent the summer testing the accuracy of predictive models of radio communications in the ionosphere, the electrified region of Earth’s upper atmosphere where signals bounce from one side of the globe to the other. But the grand finale came in September, when Katz joined an army of more than 1,000 citizen-scientists Frissell had assembled around the globe for a solar eclipse party: testing the strength and reach of their high frequency signals as one measure of the total solar eclipse’s impact on Earth’s atmosphere. He’s now given his own talks on the experiment to radio clubs around the country, hobnobbed with scientists and crunched reams of data. Research, he says, can be like searching for buried treasure no map and a lot of deadlines. “But you’re going to run around like crazy trying to find out!”


Soojin Kim

Lab Dreams

When then-freshman Soojin Kim ’20 approached Alice Eun Lee, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, about working in her lab, the outcome was far from certain. “She asked me if I had research experience. I didn’t.  She then looked at my course load and asked me if I had the dedication to come to the lab on a regular basis. And that, I could promise.”  For the past several months, Kim has been helping Lee’s research team develop a bioscaffold derived from the extracellular matrix – the structural molecules that support cells – of the pancreas, to serve as a niche to culture insulin-producing pancreatic stem cells. Diabetes attacks the pancreas, and so the researchers’ goal is to create a structure that will attract and nurture healthy cells. “We hope they’ll proliferate,” says Kim, who spent much of the summer stripping cells from their matrix and observing interactions between live cells and biomaterials. Her first research hurdle was creating a hydrogel containing the structural molecules. “It just wouldn’t gel at all and that was a critical part of the experiment. I tried over and over. I actually dreamed about the experiment one night and within 24 hours, it had gelled!” says Kim, who spent eight hours a day in the lab over the summer. Encouraged by her strides, she’s now applying for another research grant to continue her work. Of her future, she notes, “I want to be a doctor who collaborates in research. I do love gathering data.”


Basma Abukwaik

Talking Healthcare on the Streets of Newark

Binder in hand, biology major Basma Abukwaik ’17 stepped off campus this summer to hear what people outside of the world of high-tech labs think of emerging healthcare applications. More specifically, she wanted to learn whether women in Newark would be willing to use their smartphones to connect with a range of providers – from doctors, to nutritionists, to life coaches – through video-conferencing. She asked 10 questions and sometimes got surprising answers. “The bigger question is how technology can fill healthcare gaps for people who lack access for any number of reasons,” recounts Abukwaik, who is minoring in Science, Technology and Society. “One of the people I interviewed on the street was a nursing student, and when we talked about transportation being a problem for some, she said it might be better to improve transit systems so people could get to their doctors.” About half of her respondents said they would consider using a device. In the second phase of her research, Abukwaik is going to ask women to test the system on a commercially available application. Later this month, she heads to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, billed as the largest gathering for women technologists, to hear keynote speaker Melinda Gates, to network and to solicit feedback on her ideas. “This is going to be my senior year capstone project. I’m eager to meet other people in telehealth and hear their recommendations.”

The Office of Undergraduate Research and Innovation will award Phase-1 Student Seed Grants of $500 per project to pursue preliminary research or to demonstrate an initial proof-of-concept or prototypes. Students seeking to further develop their research or complete prototypes are encouraged to apply for URI Phase-2 Student Seed Grants of up to $3,000. Proposals are due Oct. 6.