Although Samantha Hemleben and Pavel Zaytsev had different motivations for applying to a National Science Foundation-funded program that supports research experiences for undergraduates at Oregon State University, the outcome for each of them was the same: they are both now graduate students in robotics, hoping to capitalize on the growth potential in an exciting field of research.

Hemleben was a math major in her junior year at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, when a computer science class intrigued her enough to declare a computational science emphasis. There was one catch: she had to fulfill a research or internship requirement. When her advisor recommended Oregon State’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates summer program, Hemleben — a self-proclaimed opportunist — applied and was accepted. She was on her way to Oregon two weeks after returning from Ireland, where she had studied during the spring semester.

Pavel Zaytsev was studying electrical engineering at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts, after a five-and-a-half-year stint as an army medic. He was fascinated with robotics, partly because it fed his penchant for science fiction, so when he read about the undergraduate research program, he immediately submitted his application and relentlessly followed up until he was accepted.

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates program is designed to provide undergraduates with in-depth research experience they might not get otherwise. The National Science Foundation strongly suggests that at least 50 percent of selected students come from schools that are not research intensive. The goal is to expose students to research in STEM fields and provide hands-on, long-term guidance on what to expect in a graduate school setting. 

The Oregon State’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program was launched in 2014 by Bill Smart and Cindy Grimm, both associate professors in mechanical engineering. The program has hosted 10 students per year and will continue until August 2016.

Although individual research projects may be designed to focus on a single discipline or academic department, what attracted both Hemleben and Zaytsev to Oregon State was the range of options and the interdisciplinary nature of the program.

“I liked that they were pushing a program style that is collaborative and focuses on practical solutions,” said Zaytsev. “They are not just conducting research, but doing something that will have a lot of impact.” 

Hemleben and Zaytsev both worked with Ross Hatton, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering whose research on snakes and spiders provides the creative foundation for models that manipulate movement from a single point of control. Their findings will support efforts to combine natural and robotic systems. Using an air hockey table with a puck attached to a tether, they modeled the puck’s movement to mimic that of a jumping spider. Zaytsev focused on the hardware aspect of the project while Hemleben worked on math modeling. 

“I had no clue I wanted to study robotics, but I knew I wanted to learn something new, “ said Hemleben. “Being able to combine my math background with computer science and this new field was really exciting to me.” 

After a summer in the Willamette Valley working in Hatton’s lab, both Hemleben and Zaytsev returned to their home institutions to finish their undergraduate degrees. But Oregon State’s program had opened their eyes to opportunities neither knew existed, and the experience inspired each of them to apply to graduate school at Oregon State. 

“It was very satisfying on a personal level — it isn’t just research, there are actual uses for it,” said Zaytsev. The experience changed his thinking from, “I don’t want to go to grad school” to, “The only grad school I want to go to is Oregon State.” 

As first-year robotics graduate students, Zaytsev likes the opportunity to work on projects that will have practical applications in the world, while Hemleben is invigorated by the opportunity to apply her math to a variety of different areas. 

“I don’t want to niche myself, and there are so many options, so many professors doing cool research,” said Hemleben.

— Krista Klinkhammer

Published Date: 
Thursday, January 28, 2016