Penn State partners with two universities for diversity in materials research

Group of students viewing a demonstration and discussing.

Participants in the Partnership for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) program in 2019 walk students through a science demonstration at the Penn State Science-U Make It Matter camp. The PREM students left to right against the wall are Michael Cruse from North Carolina Central University, David Reyes-Ramirez from California State Los Angeles and Brett Green from Penn State.

Image: Penn State

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has named Penn State the lead partner to both Florida International University (FIU) and North Carolina Central University (NCCU) as part of the Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) program.

The PREM is funded by the NSF as a prestigious award to minority-serving institutions to increase diversity and inclusion in materials research through collaborative research projects, institutional capacity building and student-focused educational activities with NSF centers and facilities. Its central goal of increasing recruitment, retention and degrees earned by underrepresented groups is achieved by engaging underserved populations with opportunities for research and professional development in materials.

At Penn State, one of the PREM efforts is led by the Center for Nanoscale Science. The center is one of 19 Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSEC) in the United States funded by NSF, which bring together expertise from physical, biological and computational sciences and engineering for fundamental materials research. The centers also have broad portfolios of education and outreach programs that target audiences from K-12 through graduate school, as well as the general public.

Penn State’s PREM relationship with NCCU began with a series of meetings between Penn State and NCCU faculty in 2015, leading to a successful PREM proposal and the subsequent launch of the NCCU-MRSEC partnership in 2016.

“NCCU was very interested in bringing their undergraduates to Penn State to get a world-leading R1 university research experience and immersing them in that environment with peers their own age or people a few years ahead,” said Vincent Crespi, Penn State distinguished professor of physics, materials science and engineering, and chemistry; and director of the Center for Nanoscale Science. “We augmented and tailored our mentoring activities to the interests and needs of NCCU students to create a peer mentoring program we call Penn Pals.”

The Penn State/NCCU PREM partnership features two core research thrusts linking interests and capabilities at both institutions to extend the scope and depth of research beyond those accessible at either institution. Thrust 1 focuses on mixed-dimensional (0D or 1D/2D) heterostructures for sensing, photovoltaic and photocatalytic applications. Thrust 2 explores hybrid metal/semiconductor, organic-inorganic perovskite and polymer/ceramic nanocomposites and the impact of nanoscale structure on optical and dielectric properties.

The PREM research and mentoring experience provides invaluable training and experience for NCCU undergraduate and masters students looking to pursue doctoral degrees or begin careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“This partnership expands the depth and scope of materials research at NCCU, providing NCCU students and faculty with opportunities to work with world-leading faculty and facilities at Penn State to study emerging properties of novel nanoscale systems,” said Marvin Wu, NCCU professor of physics and PREM co-principal investigator. “The partnership also leverages Penn State MRSEC resources to prepare NCCU students for STEM graduate study or industrial careers by giving them first-hand experience with the scale of research and academic demands at a major research institution, and providing academic support, career guidance and professional development activities.”

The relationship building part of the Penn Pal program is something Crespi would like to see grow. Currently, the Penn Pal program mostly develops the mentoring relationships over the summer, and he envisions that collaborative spirit expanding into a year-round effort, he said.

“There are a couple capstone undergraduate courses at NCCU that are key in preparing students for graduate school,” Crespi said. “They have to master those courses to hit the ground running in graduate school.”

Crespi sees PREM undergraduate students from NCCU receiving mentoring from Penn State doctorate students on successfully navigating these preparative courses.

“Students in the MRSEC will act as course mentors for PREM undergraduates to facilitate mastery of the material and highlight key elements of these courses that correlate to grad school success, all coming from somebody who took those same courses just a few years before,” Crespi said. “These efforts will further enrich and extend the mentoring relationship through the academic year.”

The PREM partnership with FIU is new, but is the result of a relationship between FIU around Penn State’s 2D Crystal Consortium Materials Innovation Platform (2DCC-MIP) that goes back five years. The 2DCC is a national user facility, supported by NSF, that is focused on advancing the synthesis of 2D layered chalcogenides for next generation electronics and quantum technologies. It includes state-of-the-art equipment for bulk crystal growth, thin film deposition and in situ characterization as well as expertise in theory and simulation which was of interest to FIU.

“We initially got connected with Daniela Radu, the primary investigator at FIU,” said Joan Redwing, director of the 2DCC and synthesis lead, and professor of materials science and engineering and electrical engineering. “Once they learned about the 2DCC and the facilities that we have, they submitted a proposal to become users of the 2DCC. Over the years, we’ve written a couple of joint grant proposals with them, including one funded by NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity, so we already have an existing collaboration with them.”

The PREM will build on the existing FIU-Penn State relationship. The FIU/Penn State project is known as Innovations in Materials, Processes, and Applications for Quantum Technologies (NSF PREM IMPAQT). NSF PREM IMPAQT focuses on fundamental and practical aspects of 2D materials and processes that have potential impacts in quantum science.

“The PREM grant will enable us to strengthen the research collaborations and student training that we started through the 2DCC user project and the NASA program and take them in new directions focused on quantum materials,” Redwing said.

Radu said that the benefits her students see from the PREM program are many.

“The center aims to foster student training and mentoring in quantum science, with focus on inclusion of underrepresented minorities and women,” said Radu, who is an associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering at FIU. “The participating students will have the opportunity to engage in the collaborative research of the NSF PREM IMPAQT center, benefiting from the student exchange program and various professional development activities that we planned in tandem with 2DCC. “

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