Four years, three continents: Undergraduate research provides valuable lessons

Ramya Gurunathan, a senior studying materials science and engineering, stands in a materials research lab in Penn State's Millennium Research Complex.

Jesse Westbrook

April 15, 2016

[Read the story on Penn State News]

Ramya Gurunathan is using her knowledge to explore the microscopic world, one research experience at a time.

A senior Schreyer Scholar studying materials science and engineering, Gurunathan first delved into research as a first-year student in 2013. She worked with Suzanne Mohney, professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, to study solar cell materials and increase the efficiency of solar cell technology.

 “To have that opportunity as a freshman, it really taught me that you can get involved and make a difference early on,” said Gurunathan.

It was during this early experience that Gurunathan also learned the importance of networking.

“I’ve always been interested in being involved with as many opportunities as I can be, and a good way to do that is by getting to know a lot of people in my field,” she said.

Networking in Japan

Gurunathan continued to network during the summer before her sophomore year, when she participated in the NanoJapan IREU: International Research Experience for Undergraduates. Through the program, a selection of American students studying in the fields of engineering or physics at U.S. institutions participate in a 12-week summer research internship.

“I had been reading that a lot of the cutting-edge materials science research was taking place in Japan, so I was excited to get involved with projects there,” she said.

Gurunathan worked with researchers at Tohoku University in Japan and analyzed material defects in semiconductors, which can be used in applications such as hybrid cars.

She said that the people she worked with have since provided useful insight into research both in industry and in the academic world.

“My interactions with my research advisers have proven to be invaluable for me as a student because they were open to staying in contact to provide me with advice, and I’ve kept in touch with a couple of them since I’ve been back at Penn State,” Gurunathan said.

Interacting with different cultures

Gurunathan’s experience in Japan also included a three-week, intensive cultural and language course.

 “The course helped me gain a beginner’s knowledge of Japanese, as well as learn some Japanese customs,” Gurunathan said.

“Completing research abroad enables you to learn both a technical language and a cultural language, and that’s very beneficial for my career in materials science and engineering,” she added.

Experiencing a new culture was also a major goal for Gurunathan in fall 2015 when she traveled to the Netherlands to conduct research as part of the EuroScholars research abroad program. The program sends undergraduates to internationally renowned European research universities. Gurunathan chose to work in the Leiden Institute of Physics to get experience in a field closely related to materials science and engineering.

“The EuroScholars program allowed me to conduct research while simultaneously immersing myself in Dutch culture,” she said.

At Leiden University, she worked with physics researchers on materials for computing applications. Specifically, Gurunathan worked with transistors, which are devices through which electric current runs, and tried to manipulate the spin of the electrons inside them. Electrons are negatively charged and are either spin-up or spin-down. The natural tendency for electrons is to achieve an equal balance of spin-up and spin-down within electric current. Gurunathan’s focus, however, was to induce an imbalance of spin.

“To have that opportunity as a freshman, it really taught me that you can get involved and make a difference early on.”

-- Ramya Gurunathan

“Using an imbalance of electron spin in computing, rather than the standard electrical current that we’ve used for decades, would be monumental in terms of being energy efficient by reducing heat loss and power waste,” Gurunathan said.

Though her group at Leiden had not finished their research before she returned to Penn State, Gurunathan believes they made significant progress on their project.

Bridging the gap between macroscopic and atomic level research

Gurunathan believed that the knowledge she gained in her Penn State courses suited her well for the research.

“In the physics world, researchers work more on the atomic scale. However, I tend to focus on the macroscopic end of the spectrum through my materials science and engineering courses at Penn State, and I think this helped to bridge a gap with my fellow researchers,” she said.

“I had to learn a lot from them, but I also brought a new perspective so they could learn from me too.”

Her next step after graduation is to pursue her dream of becoming a scientist through yet another research experience. She will be pursuing a masters of philosophy in scientific computing at the University of Cambridge as the recipient of a prestigious Churchill Scholarship that she recently received.