Summer Research: STEM-SI Helps Students Build Research and Career Capacity

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Some of us see summer as a time to rest and recuperate from the stressful academic year. But others have found ways to make summer productive–and even change people’s lives.

Vassie Ware and Neal Simon, both professors of biological sciences at Lehigh University, fall into the latter group. The two direct, in collaboration with Lehigh University’s Institute for Cyber Physical Infrastructure and Energy (I-CPIE), a 10-week summer program at Lehigh called STEM-SI (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Summer Institute). This program evolved from a previous incarnation, BDSI (Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute), which was developed by the Ware/Simon team in 2006 as a component of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bioscience grant awarded to Lehigh.

Using funding from Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Ware and Simon built BDSI, a 10-week undergraduate summer training program, with the intent to develop future researchers. Students worked with teams of faculty from different disciplines (for example, a biologist and an engineer) generally on a life science-related research project of mutual interest. BDSI  ran for eight years with HHMI support and then transitioned to support from Lehigh. After several years of Lehigh support, the summer training program shifted its primary research focus from the life sciences to research in STEM fields overall with the assistance of Richard Sause, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who was also serving as Director at both Lehigh’s ATLSS Engineering Research Center and I-CPIE at that time, and to Shalinee Kishore, current I-CPIE Director and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. With this new interdisciplinary team, the summer training program was able to expand the faculty pool into various engineering disciplines. Among students attracted to the summer training program are those from underrepresented groups, specifically those in Lehigh’s RARE (Rapidly Accelerated Research Experience) program.

This kind of evolution to fill a newly recognized need reflects a Lehigh strength, Ware says; the university is small enough “to convene a group that is meaningful, get things accomplished, and engage people.” Chad Kusko, I-CPIE Director of Operations (Institute for Cyber Physical Infrastructure and Energy, adds that Lehigh’s advantages for such a program include its status as a “leading research university with a strong faculty base doing cutting-edge research.”

Any student interested in performing research, including all RARE scholars, can apply for the program early in the calendar year. After the application process, faculty use the applicant pool to select the student(s) they’d like to work with. Ware and the STEM-SI team ask faculty to prioritize students in the RARE program if possible, and they like to see faculty give students “an opportunity to talk to them to see if there’s a good fit.” ”Underrepresented” is defined more broadly than the federal categories of race and gender, opening the program to first generation students and considerations of financial status. As Ware says, it’s a broader vision, directed toward engaging more students in the research experience.


Faculty involved in the program gain more research help for their projects, while also providing seminars that are open to the STEM-SI community. This summer, for example, Dylan Shopshire has presented on the Wolbachia bacterium’s potential to curtail malaria’s spread and Ekuma Chinedu has presented on data-driven modeling for sustainable energy. The seminars show students the nuts and bolts of research from idea to result, and lets students see that possibilities for their own research and careers are wide open and may allow crossover into unexpected areas of interest. As Ware points out, a biology major working on an interdisciplinary research project can develop skills that allow them to work collaboratively with individuals from other fields to solve problems. Another benefit to the seminars is that they give faculty members insights into each others’ research: Ware has seen several faculty collaborations form during summer programs. 

Some students are supported by their faculty mentors’ research portfolio and others by STEM-SI funds. Such a mix allows STEM-SI to admit more students and extend its reach–as Kusko says, the leadership team wants to fund as many students as possible–and all receive a stipend to cover their living expenses during the summer. The program provides seminars on professional development too, with workshops on career paths, identifying strengths, and opportunities for networking. They also have plenty of time for socializing after their research day is over.

STEM-SI students also get a firsthand look at what graduate school would be like as they consider their careers. Faculty are doing the same type of evaluation, thinking about which students might become grad students who can join their research teams, says Kusko. This is one reason faculty participate in STEM-SI, he says. It’s also an opportunity for them to add research bandwidth to their labs while helping create research networks and build community benefits for sponsored research grants. When STEM-SI students are ready for graduate school, their STEM-SI mentors might add them to their lab, offer career guidance, or provide a recommendation.

The pool of STEM-SI students who have graduated is relatively small at this point, as the program is only in its fourth year. But BDSI and RARE students who have graduated have gone on to impressive places for graduate school, says Ware, noting that students have gone on to “top-of-the-line” graduate programs, medical schools, or MD/PhD programs. Others have gone into industry, government agencies, and pharmaceutical companies.

The summer wraps up with Research Day, which provides students with an opportunity to present their work to their fellow students, faculty, judges, and even family members. Students make posters, but the important part, Ware says, is communication. During the summer, she says, “we encourage students to talk about their research all the time, and they have to be able to give the elevator speech,” a short, clear explanation, at the regular Monday morning cafes. Ware says it’s “vital to be able to talk to people about the work you do.” Presenting that work to non-STEM people is part of the learning experience, especially for students whose future careers will involve working in teams and/or presenting their work to colleagues. This year, Research Day will be held on August 1, in Building C on Mountaintop Campus. It is open to the Lehigh community.

Even after four years and about 225 students, Ware says, the program is “still striving.” She’d like to see more opportunities for students in their earlier years to have experiential learning, especially students who don’t fit into the RARE program and have few other opportunities for research. STEM-SI’s experiential learning leads to retention and engagement, she says, and there should be more of it for a broader swathe of students. She’d also like to see students exposed to higher levels of interdisciplinary research, as seen within Lehigh’s three interdisciplinary research institutes, she says, so that they understand the concept of a center and higher-level collaboration.

Kusko would be happy to see the program grow, saying it’s simply a rewarding program to be part of. “We all want the program to be run as well and smoothly as it can, as if our own kids were in it, to make it a program where students can get their first start.” If the program continues, Ware’s vision of getting more students into research early in their academic careers has a good chance of becoming reality.

Photo credits: Top, Christa Neu; bottom, Tim Cox