A Foundational Experience: Students at the Forefront of Research

By Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen

Shortly after I arrived at Boston University as an assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering more than 30 years ago, I sat through an undergraduate student research presentation. It was awful. The students wore shorts and t-shirts. They used overhead transparencies that were primitive even for the time. But as I sat there, I could see the potential for something much better and more useful for the students.

I embarked on an effort to set the bar much higher by making effective technical writing communication and polished student research presentations hallmarks for every fourth-year student in the department. The Senior Design Project was born and became a universal (albeit somewhat stressful) part of the BME academic experience, a chance to do a focused, research- and design-based project led by faculty, clinical or industry mentors who care. Students often worked in teams and brought the knowledge gained in the experience – and in four years as undergraduates — to bear on a real challenge, often one posed by a real company, a real clinical need or a fundamental question on disease mechanism.

Students make their presentations at the conclusion of senior year and are expected to wear business attire and make a professional presentation complete with PowerPoint and other media, with representatives of companies (and potential employers) sitting among the students and faculty in the audience. Senior Design is now required for engineering seniors in every department. Across the board, what was once almost embarrassing is now quite impressive throughout the entire College of Engineering.

Around that time, the College was just establishing a research footprint. The value and excitement of undergraduate research was quickly understood not just by the faculty and College administration, but also by the students. In the years since, opportunities for research have blossomed for students throughout their undergraduate years. The Summer Term Alumni Research Scholars, Supplemental Undergraduate Research Funds, Distinguished Summer Research Fellowships, Presidential Engineering Scholars, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and the Trustee, Bell and FIRST Scholars all offer paid research opportunities to students during the summer or academic year. Combined with other, less formal opportunities in individual faculty members’ labs, the number of undergraduates engaged in research is now more than 300 each year.

Students regularly feature these projects prominently on their resumes, as they should. Their accomplishments help them gain admission to some of the nation’s best graduate schools and secure jobs with some of the best companies.

The success of undergraduate research programs has been extraordinarily gratifying, because they have grown not only through student and faculty enthusiasm, but through the support and dedication of our alumni, many of whom were shaped by their experiences in these very same programs. The majority of these undergraduate opportunities in our labs are funded through alumni gifts. It is truly a rewarding way for alumni who gained so much from their experience to pay it forward and insure future BU Engineering alums have the same opportunities they did.  I hope that after reading this issue’s cover story you will be excited to support and expand these incredible experiences for our students.

To find out how you can support student research opportunities, visit bu.edu/eng/alumni.

This essay first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of ENGineer, the College of Engineering’s alumni magazine