Summer research jobs give students a taste of real-world R and D

Malina Wu and John Spencer are among a group of students getting leading-edge research experience in UAlberta engineering labs. The jobs are funded by the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Awards program.

Malina Wu and John Spencer are among a group of students getting leading-edge research experience in UAlberta engineering labs. The jobs are funded by the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Awards program.

Malina Wu: I’m in chemical engineering, co-op option, going into my fourth year in September. Right now, I’m working on a research project into surface tension. Our ultimate goal is to develop a biological sensor that needs a very small sample to detect solute concentrations. For early cancer detection, we’ll take a small volume of blood, put it on the sensor that will give a quick sensitive readout and can identify anything abnormal that’s in the sample. Or a sensor in a lake—we’ll be able to pick out one drop of oil before an oil spill even happens. In the air, we could detect small toxins or pollutants. The air in Edmonton was really smokey because of the B.C. wildfires, so the sensor could detect the smoke before it hits the city.  

This is my first co-op placement and I really like it. When I was just starting my research project, Dr. Thundat showed me a picture of a bug standing on water and asked, ‘Wonder why they can walk on water without breaking the surface?’ This got me really interested in surface tension and how there are so many things in nature that go unnoticed. Now every time something happens in nature, I wonder why it happens.

I really like how research depends on you—how much work you want to do, how much effort you want to put into it, how much knowledge you want to gain to be able to think critically about the data you’re getting. You’re not just conducting experiments, you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing and what the results tell you. This experience made me want to do a master’s or PhD.

I can now set up and conduct experiments and I’ve gotten a lot better with reading papers. I am also better at analyzing data. I’m able to identify trends and understand why I get certain numbers. I present at group meetings, so I have to gather and explain information to people outside my field.

I’m officially done full-time with the research group at the end of August and I go back to school in September, but I’m staying on the project part-time. I’ll be helping collect data and move to the next stage. Hopefully, this will carry on until my master’s or PhD and I can focus on biological interactions between solutes in my thesis.

John Spencer: I’ve just finished my fourth year of civil engineering, co-op option, and the main project I’m working on right now focuses on the hybrid mass timber product (HMTP). The hybrid mass timber product is made of engineered lumber ‘sandwiched’ in regular lumber and is used for beams, floors or wall panels. The product is so thick and rigid that it’s hard to light it on fire. Moreover, you can control its properties a lot better than in ordinary lumber.

The intention behind the mass timber product is to manufacture a solid one-piece customization panel with the possibility of cutting doors, windows, or openings into it. For the right project, especially multifamily or commercial, the construction time can be dramatically reduced with little to no on-site waste. 

I like how diverse my project is, I do different things almost every day. I’ve been part of specimen preparation, fabricating samples, gluing them together, and testing their shear strength. It’s like every kid’s dream—you get to put something in a big machine and break it with really high forces.

Most of the research Dr. Chui and I are doing right now has to do with different types of testing to come up with design standards. Basically, we’re figuring out what one day might be the code for the industry.

I’ve acquired a profound understanding of how the testing procedures work. The biggest takeaway is how to take ‘this is what we want to do’ and come up with a testing apparatus. Every day something new happens and the machinery might not work, so being able to identify what’s going wrong and why it’s going wrong definitely helps.

It’s been really cool to see the paperwork we did in school come alive and understand how they came up with those formulas, calculations, and numbers we had to memorize.

I’m limited in my knowledge and it’s wonderful to be able to talk to someone else who has more experience in the field. When I was working on other projects, I was able to mentor my teammates.

I think I’m going to do an MSc one day, part of the reason why I chose to experience the research side of structural engineering. It was a trial run—if I couldn’t stand this, then I don’t know if I want to commit two years of my life to research.