The World Through a Microscope

Recent Penn State alumna Ramya Gurunathan will study scientific computing at the University of Cambridge.

Recent Penn State graduate Ramya Gurunathan is headed to the University of Cambridge thanks to the prestigious Churchill Scholarship.

The highly sought-after program allows American college students to pursue graduate studies in engineering, mathematics, or the sciences. 

Only the second Penn State student to win the Churchill Scholarship since its inception in 1963, the Schreyer Scholar earned her degree in materials science and engineering and nanotechnology from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences in May 2016.

Undergraduate Research

Gurunathan first delved into research as a first-year student in 2013. She worked with Suzanne Mohney, professor of materials science and engineering, 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,” says Gurunathan. 

student works in research lab

Research lab

Ramya Gurunathan, a senior studying materials science and engineering, conducts research in a materials research lab at Penn State. She worked with Suzanne Mohney, professor of materials science and engineering, to study solar cell technology. This is one of the many research experiences Gurunathan has been involved with as an undergraduate.

Image: Penn State

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 says. 

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. 

“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.”

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 says.

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.

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 says. 

student stands in front of Buddhist temple

Tōdai-ji temple in Japan

Ramya Gurunathan, a senior studying materials science and engineering, stands in front of Tōdai-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan. Visiting the temple was one of the many cultural experiences Gurunathan had while participating in the NanoJapan IREU: International Research Experience for Undergraduates program during summer 2013.

Image: Ramya Gurunathan

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. She 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 says.  

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 electrons inside them.

Other travel and research experiences for Gurunathan included summer internships at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, New York, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California.

An Engaged Future

Gurunathan will apply her Churchill Scholarship toward a master of philosophy degree in scientific computing, which will help to further her career goals in computational materials science research. Her dream is to work at a Department of Energy lab or at NIST, the National Institute of Standards in Technology. 

“I want to be a part of a new age of scientists who are civically and culturally engaged. I want to be able to excite and invite general audiences to explore modern science by communicating my own research in a palatable and accessible way.”

Content contributed by Jesse Westbrook and Beth Kocher Gormley

More about the Churchill Scholarship

The Churchill Foundation's scholarship program offers U.S. students of exceptional ability and proven talent in research the opportunity to pursue a full-year master's program.

Only fifteen of these scholarships are awarded each year, making it one of the most prestigious fellowships in the world.