UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Faced with a growing workload in its research labs, the Materials Research Institute (MRI) met the challenge by offering Penn State students an opportunity that most materials science and engineering undergraduates normally never receive.
Within MRI’s state-of-the-art lab facilities in University Park’s Millennium Science Complex, a wide variety of research work is carried out daily. Along with being the center of materials research at Penn State, MRI also offers a variety of user services to both Penn State and external researchers. This includes sample fabrication and characterization by MRI’s Nanofabrication Laboratory and Materials Characterization Laboratory (MCL) for hundreds of industry, government and university users. In addition, there are outreach activities such as providing research support to primarily undergraduate institutions through the National Science Foundation Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers’ Materials Research Facilities Network (MRFN).
The combination of growing utilization of the MCL by the Penn State community coupled with an interest in expanding outreach activities created a workload that required some outside-the-box thinking to keep up with demand.
“We kicked around a bunch of ideas to address these opportunities, and one of them was what if we took the time to invest in hiring some bright Penn State undergraduate students so that they could help the lab achieve some of our goals over the summer,” said Josh Stapleton, MCL Director and MRI staff scientist.
Some of the students were trained to become proficient in basic TEM operations. TEM refers to transmission electron microscopes, a key tool in materials characterization where a thin specimen, ideally less than 100 nanometers, is exposed to an energy electron beam for high-resolution imaging.
“An entry-level TEM operator can do things such as load and unload samples, carry out basic imaging, and do basic elemental mapping,” Stapleton said. “While this may sound simple, it’s a complicated process that requires time to master. We provided the students with ample time to learn the technique and become proficient. It's rare to have undergraduate students perform this sort of high-level work in part due to the investments that is needed for them to become independent.”
According to Stapleton, with the workload ever increasing, the need for an innovative solution was clear, so they hired a group of students to work in MCL over the summer. These students were then teamed with MRI staff scientists to receive a level of training that normally only graduate students receive.
“It helps advance some of the goals of MRI, but it’s truly a win-win because for the students, you are making them marketable for graduate studies or industry looking to hire people with specific skill sets,” Stapleton said.
One student, Bevan Harbinson, a junior majoring in materials science and engineering, worked with Trevor Clark, MCL staff scientist, to become an independent TEM operator. His primary task was to support one of the 2021 MRFN researchers, Kate Plass at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
“There is a lot of underutilized time on the TEM schedules during the off hours and Kate wanted to use it remotely but needed someone to load samples and support the students,” Clark said.