Faculty earn $240,000 NSF grant for campus REU site

UM-Dearborn Research Experience for Undergraduates

Six students participated in the mathematics Research Experience for Undergraduates on campus last summer. Faculty members Yunus Zeytuncu (back, second from left) and Hyejin Kim (front, right) will welcome twice that number this year thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation.

With busy work schedules and other demands, many of UM-Dearborn’s students might have to forgo educational opportunities outside of the classroom.

So to make it easier for them to engage in research, Mathematics assistant professors Yunus Zeytuncu and Hyejin Kim have worked to create a way to ease financial demands on students during the summer.

Two years ago, on a small budget, the two math faculty members started a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer program that offered talented UM-Dearborn students an opportunity to make research their summer job. For eight weeks, select students focused solely on academics — with a stipend, paid room and board at The Union at Dearborn and meals included, they didn’t need to divide their focus.

“This freedom allows a different way of thinking. I’ve seen the paradigm shift. During the first week, students are still focusing on the idea of today and not really future planning. By the end of the eight weeks, they are talking about going to graduate school and other professional goals,” Zeytuncu said. “Their confidence in their abilities, academic and otherwise, increases. “

With the positive results gathered from the small group of students mentored during the summer program—students presented at internationally attended research conferences and they applied to graduate school— Zeytuncu and Kim were recently awarded a large National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, which allows them to double the size of their REU cohort.

In addition to hosting 12 students on campus this summer, the grant—$240,000 over a three-year period— will help Zeytuncu and Kim bring in expert guest speakers, offer GRE-focused training, send more students to competitive conferences and more.

Zeytuncu also said that hosting an NSF-funded REU site gives UM-Dearborn students an advantage over their peers.

“REUs are an important way to improve skills. Not just in math—in critical thinking and problem solving too. But, with only 50 or so NSF-funded REUs around the country, they are very competitive to get in to. With us hosting, six Dearborn students (according to the NSF guidelines, the other six need to be from outside of the campus) will have an opportunity to take part in this REU each summer,” he said. “The program will introduce students to a large network of mentors and peers, which will assist them in career planning and in commitment to the scientific community.”

Senior Brandon Lee, engineering mathematics and mechanical engineering double major, took part in the REU summer program last year. To focus on the program, he left a position at DENSO. At the time, it was a difficult choice—but, looking back, he said that it was exactly what he needed to evaluate his future career path.

“I really enjoyed the research. At work, you complete tasks that are given to you. But research is different—it’s progress made every day due to your own struggles and your own ideas,” said Lee, who applied to Ph.D. programs after the REU experience and has been accepted to U-M Ann Arbor, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and others. “A significant amount of my graduate school application focused on my REU research and conference presentation. The program has opened so many doors for me.

“I know life-changing is a flowery term that people throw around. But in this case, it’s accurate.”

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