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Stanford MatSci Undergraduate Research

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The Value of Undergraduate Research

The Stanford Materials Science and Engineering Department welcomes undergraduates to participate in research as part of their undergraduate education. Undergraduate research offers students the chance to apply knowledge from the classroom to real-world scientific and technological challenges. Research in our department is highly interdisciplinary and focuses on several of the Grand Challenges in Engineering, including efforts in biomaterials and regenerative medicine, electronic and photonic materials, materials computation and design, materials for sustainability, structural materials, nanoscale characterization, and advanced synthesis and fabrication methods. Stanford MatSci is an exciting place for anyone interested in getting involved in research!

While research offers hands-on opportunities in a variety of cutting-edge topics, undergraduates also form strong connections with our faculty, research staff, postdocs, and graduate students. Undergraduate research typically begins with directed mentorship in order to learn the fundamentals of research. By shadowing a mentor in the lab, students gain exposure to a wide range of technical skills including experimental design, materials synthesis and characterization, data analysis, and computational techniques. Over time, undergraduates also develop important communication and project management skills that allow students to both work independently and collaborate with other researchers.

Research and Your Career

Engaging in undergraduate research is valuable for students interested in any technical career, including those thinking about positions in industrial R&D, start-ups, scientific policy, technical consulting, graduate school, and many other fields. Conducting research is a great way to strengthen your problem-solving abilities, a skill that many employers and admissions committees look for in prospective applicants. Students also have several opportunities to practice their communication skills and publicly share their research by presenting at conferences and publishing papers in scientific journals.

Most importantly, research offers undergraduates the chance to see what being a scientist or engineer is really like! Students often come to Stanford with several interests and many feel unsure about what topics truly inspire them. Conducting research allows undergraduates to explore cutting-edge topics with broad technological, engineering, and scientific significance and can help students find paths they are passionate about. Furthermore, research helps connect students with a professional network of faculty, research staff, and graduate students that can lead to future research opportunities, letters of recommendation, and career guidance.

Is Research for You?

There is a common misconception that undergraduate research is only for a narrow subset of the undergraduate population, whether that is top academic performers, upperclassmen, or people with previous research experience - but this is completely untrue!

Being a good researcher has nothing to do with previous academic experience or performance because every research project requires a unique set of knowledge and skills. Instead, the most important characteristics in research are patience, resilience, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn. If you are motivated to learn new things outside of the classroom and want to help solve real-world scientific and engineering challenges, then research could be a great fit for you and there are groups that would be happy to welcome you. Check out the Getting Started in Research section below to learn more about joining a research group.

Undergraduate Research Testimonials

Getting Started in Research

There are a variety of opportunities to participate in research both at Stanford and abroad. Students are encouraged to explore all of the options below to find the best research fit. These include research opportunities that are paid and for course credit, during the school year and over the summer, and for students of all levels and backgrounds.

Opportunities at Stanford

MatSci REU Program 10-week summer research opportunity for Stanford undergraduates. Students participate full-time and receive a research stipend. Students are not required to identify a faculty research advisor before participating.
MatSci UG Research Grants 2-quarter research opportunity during the academic year for Stanford undergraduates. Students participate part time and are eligible for funding.
MatSci Honor's Program 3-quarter research opportunity for Stanford MatSci majors. Intended for advanced undergraduates. Students enroll in MatSci 150 for course credit. Students must identify a faculty research advisor before participating.
Coterminal Master's Program 2-quarter minimum research opportunity for admitted Stanford MatSci coterminal masters students. Students enroll in MatSci 200 for course credit. Students must identify a faculty research advisor before participating.
Federal Work Study For Stanford undergraduates who qualify for financial aid. Students must identify a faculty research advisor before participating. Students should reach out to their advisor for more information on how to fund research using FWS.
Stanford VPUE Grants Research grants available for Stanford undergraduates. These include the Small Grant (part-time during the academic year), Major Grant (full-time during the summer), and Conference Grants (funding to present research).

Opportunities Abroad

National Science Foundation REU Programs Funded research opportunities at a variety of host institutions across the country. Students can find opportunities in Materials Research as well as many other STEM disciplines. Internships typically available over the summer.
Department of Energy SULI Program Funded research opportunities at 17 participating national laboratories and research facilities. Internships available over the summer and during the academic year.
National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI) REU Program Funded research opportunities in nanotechnology at several host institutions across the country. Internships typically available over the summer.
Amgen Scholars Program Funded research opportunities in biotechnology at several host institutions both in the US and abroad. Internships typically available over the summer.
Caltech SURF Funded research program at Caltech in several disciplines. Internships typically available over the summer. Students must identify a research advisor before submitting an application.
Other Databases and Links

Pathways to Science

Vanderbilt University Database

University of Washington Database

Reaching out to our Faculty

Reaching out to professors can seem daunting, but our faculty are truly excited to have undergraduates join their research groups. All professors were undergraduates looking for a research project at one point and know that students need mentorship to help them learn and develop new skills. Our faculty appreciate students who take initiative, so simply approaching them is a huge first step! Below, you will find some tips on how to connect with our faculty and join a research group.

Tip #1: Find research that excites you

Students can explore the wide variety of research topics our faculty are interested in by checking out our Research Overview page. There, students will find research sub-areas and websites for each faculty member's research group. Click on a research group page to find an overview on the group's research interests, list of group members and projects, and recent publications. Try to pinpoint a few research topics or questions that you find exciting and compelling. Don't worry about all of the details though! You don't need to be an expert before reaching out to a professor and it's ok if you aren't sure about what you want to study. This is just the starting point and looking at research group websites can help narrow down your interests.

Tip #2: Find people that share your interests

Once you have found some research topics that excite you, the next step is to figure out who to contact. It's a good idea to reach out to both professors and graduate students from the research groups that interest you. Faculty will be able to give you a broad, high-level overview of the research topics in their group and graduate students will be able to tell you more about the details of their specific project. You can find a list of our faculty and their contact information on our People website. Note that MatSci courtesy faculty have primary appointments in other departments, but conduct research related to materials science and engineering. Adjunct faculty typically do not have their own research groups. Graduate student contact information is typically listed on each research group website, but if you are unsure who to contact, check out our Lab Liaison page here (coming soon!).

Tip #3: Contact mentors with a purpose

Whether you are contacting a professor or a graduate student, writing a strong email goes a long way to showing that you are genuinely interested in their research! Below are some suggested topics to include when drafting an introductory email:

  • Introduction (name, year, major or prospective major)
  • Research interests (why are you reaching out to this group specifically?)
  • Ask if there are available research opportunities
  • Talk about your funding situation (are you currently applying? are you looking for course credit?)
  • Include an updated resume and transcript (resume guidelines can be found here and students can schedule an appointment with BEAM counselors via Handshake)
  • Let them know you are available to meet to discuss further!

Additionally, here are a couple of example emails that may serve as a guide for reaching out to faculty and graduate students: Example 1 and Example 2

Tip #4: Be prepared to follow up

Check your inbox regularly for a response and be prepared to reply and set up a meeting to talk about your interests and potential research opportunities. Below are some suggested topics to bring up when chatting with faculty or graduate students:

  • Research interests: Talk about what research topics excite you and bring up things you found interesting from the group's research website
  • Research questions: Ask about the group's current projects and potential next steps (strongly encouraged to ask questions!)
  • Research availability: Are there any available research positions? What options are there for funding or course credit in the group?
  • Research expectations: What are the typical expectations for undergraduates in the group? (time commitment, mentorship, meeting schedule, potential tasks)

Note: You may not hear back from a faculty member or graduate student right away. This is completely normal as our faculty and graduate students can get quite busy at certain times. Try sending a follow up email if you don't hear back for a couple of weeks. Additionally, some groups may not have openings for undergraduates at that particular time, but don't get discouraged! Try reaching out to other groups with similar research interests or touching base with the faculty member at a later date. 

For more information or questions about undergraduate research:

Dr. Rajan Kumar
rkumar14@stanford.edu
Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of Materials Science and Engineering