Undergraduate Researchers Spotlight

Undergraduate Researchers Spotlight

Undergraduate research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign allows students to gain hands-on experience with faculty who are leaders in their fields, learning valuable skills and investigating various research fields as early as their freshman year. They may discover and refine career goals and build relationships and abilities that will lead them to better careers, whether in industry or academia.

Six undergraduate students participating in research have shared their experience below.

By: Amber Rose

Eric Yang

Senior, Materials Science and Engineering

Photo of Eric Yang
Eric Yang

Eric Yang has worked in the research lab of materials science and engineering (MatSE) associate professor Qian Chen (MRL) for about two and a half years. In fact, research is so important to him that UIUC’s rich undergraduate research opportunities were a factor in decision to study here. He says “UIUC has a reputation for having a really good research program, which is one of the reasons why I came to this school for undergrad.”

Yang’s research has focused on building an automatic workflow to analyze gold nanoparticles after they have been imaged using a transmission electron microscope. Ligands can be attached to the gold nanoparticles, which can be programmed to assemble into different crystal lattice shapes. Yang trained a neural network to identify the different components to speed up that analysis process.

“I think the coolest thing about undergraduate research is being exposed to the whole research network in general,” Yang says. “I have a paper I’m working on, and our collaborators are from the University of Michigan, Cornell, and Penn State. It’s really nice to see how collaborative the community is.”

In the fall, Yang will pursue his PhD at Northwestern University in materials science and engineering. He believes his undergraduate research has influenced his path and says that “research is a skill you accumulate over the years. Being able to do research here has allowed me to have a stepping-stone towards doing a PhD. The network that Illinois provided within the research community has really benefited me in terms of graduate admissions and future career prospects.”

Ethan White

Junior, Electrical Engineering

Photo of Ethan White
Ethan White

While working to complete his undergraduate degree in three years, Ethan White has managed to squeeze in research time as well. White started undergraduate research in his first semester at UIUC and has been working with ECE assistant professor Shaloo Rakheja (HMNTL) for the last year. He says he started undergraduate research “because I wanted something to do outside of classes that was engineering related to build my skills.”

White’s research uses TCAD (technology computer aided design) of GaN HEMTs (gallium nitride high electron mobility transistors). A big problem with trying to design transistors and other microelectronic devices is their tiny size. White explains “You can’t build it and then just stick probes on it to see what happens, because they are really hard to build, very expensive, and it takes a lot of time. So, we use TCAD to run simulations and adjust parameters.” That makes it possible to model current flow and monitor how the device heats up. It is a good way to understand how a device will behave before they spend time and resources building it.

“The best part about undergraduate research has been collaborating with members of the Air Force Research Lab- we have weekly meetings with them,” White says. “The networking has been very good, and I have been able to meet a lot of people. After I met my professor [Rakheja], she was able to introduce me to all of her students and get to know all of her other collaborators. That’s been a beneficial part of it.” He has already published papers in academic journals and will attend a conference in June.

White is unsure about his next steps but says that “the nice thing about undergraduate research is that it appeals to a lot of different people. I’m in a good place because I’m developing skills and I’m working on something that can appeal to both academia and industry.”

Anakin Dey

Junior, Mathematics

Photo of Anakin Dey
Anakin Dey

Anakin Dey started to do research in the fall of his sophomore year, as he was debating whether to pursue a career in industry or academia. He wanted to see what academic research was like. Now a junior, Dey works with aerospace engineering assistant professor Melkior Ornik (CSL) in the field of control theory.

Dey’s research focuses on heuristic algorithms. He explains that “some computational problems are extremely easy, and some are extremely hard. More often than not, the ones we care about are just extremely hard, and in these extremely hard scenarios, we don’t need an exact answer, we just need a good enough answer.” He takes a hard problem and visualizes potential patterns. He then works to create a fast approximation rather than an exact answer, which vastly speeds up computation.

“My favorite part of research is that, as opposed to homework, the answers aren’t there,” Dey says. “I get to really explore problems over a long timescale which allows me to try a bunch of things. And I get some very exploratory processes and more often than not, stuff doesn’t work, which can get frustrating. But I just keep trying to make progress, try new things, see what works, and talk to a bunch of people and see what their ideas might be.” Dey has found it rewarding to see a project all the way through to the end: from thinking about the problem, to creating a solution, to writing up the paper and presenting it at a conference.

After graduation, he plans on to pursue a PhD in either pure mathematics or theoretical computer science. Dey says that undergraduate research has given him more confidence that he’s making the right decision in pursuing a PhD and feels like he’ll have a better chance of finishing that degree because of his experiences.

Share this story

This story was published May 9, 2023.