Collaborative partnerships benefit undergraduate, graduate student researchers

Post by IU Communications colleague Andrea Zeek:

Student researchers at Indiana University learn a lot from faculty mentors, but collaborations with fellow students are often just as rich a learning experience.

Connor and Alison

Connor Bunch and Alison Smith working in the lab. | Photo by IU Communications

In research labs across campus, one such collaboration is between undergraduate students and their graduate student mentors. In addition to creating a more personalized experience for undergraduate researchers, graduate student mentors help introduce them to a community of scholars and cutting-edge topics in their fields that are often left out of the formal classroom, said Sara Skrabalak, James H. Rudy Associate Professor of Chemistry at IU.

Skrabalak said this type of engagement helps to solidify concepts and build enthusiasm among her students such as sophomore Connor Bunch, who recently presented his research on emergent properties found in nanoparticle assemblies at the 21st annual IU Undergraduate Research Conference.

Bunch and his graduate student mentor Alison Smith are both members of Skrabalak’s research group, where they work on the assembly of nanoscale materials. They’ve been partners since May, when Bunch joined the Skrabalak group at the end of his freshman year after attending an undergraduate research seminar on campus.

A biochemistry and neuroscience major, Bunch said being paired with Smith has made a big difference in his development as a researcher.

Connor and Alison

Bunch and Smith are currently researching the assembly of metallic nanoparticles. | Photo by IU Communications

“Alison has really helped me understand what I’m doing because when I first came into the lab freshman year, I really didn’t have a lot of chemical knowledge to be on par with the graduate students,” he said.

Bunch said thanks to Smith, he is now more familiar with the vocabulary that researchers use and what’s current in the nanoscale field.

But undergraduate students aren’t the only ones who benefit from this partnership.

Smith, a Ph.D. student in chemistry, said working with Bunch has increased her communication skills and helped her learn more about her field through teaching.

“I look at us more as collaborators,” she said. “It is exciting to celebrate small victories with your collaborator when research progress is made, and it is also productive to have someone to discuss trouble-shooting approaches. Connor is very detail-oriented, and we make a great team.”

They are currently researching the assembly of metallic nanoparticles, looking to harness interesting electronic and light manipulation properties not found in larger scale structures. (For example, on the nanoscale, gold particles actually appear red instead of gold in color.) Those unique properties could then be built up into structures such as medical sensing devices, Smith said.

These applications are interesting for Bunch, who aspires to become a doctor.

“One day, years from now, I may be prescribing these technologies that are in development right now,” he said.

Smith and Bunch are looking forward to continuing to collaborate next semester and beyond, as Bunch recently accepted a position in Skrabalak’s lab for summer 2016.

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