NSF REU program gives undergrads a taste of research


NSF's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) project gives students an introduction into research and the opportunities that come with it.

According to Albert Einstein, if we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research. This sentiment is not lost at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) project held at universities throughout the United States.

It’s a program designed to give students a taste of what graduate school may be like, as well as an introduction into research-based careers, according to Huzefa S. Rangwala, Department of Computer Science professor at Mason.

“The REU program brings students together in a setting where they can explore career pathways such as ethics and data science, get resume prep, and be introduced to the pace of grad school if that’s a path they consider taking,” says Rangwala.

At Mason, the REU program wrapped up in August. Thirteen selected students obtained first-hand practical experience of best research practices by participating in six projects spanning over 10 weeks.

Each participant took away a lesson learned, as the experience helped shape what kinds of opportunities a research background could offer.

To Jacinta Das, a Mason REU program participant from the College of William and Mary, her experience helped her to understand what research is and what it means.

“Investigating something in a methodical way, thinking about it in more than one way, this was helpful in figuring out how to begin researching something,” she says.

Gaining more experience in Python and Java, two widely used computer programming platforms, was a big REU takeaway for Mason student Jasmine Obas.

“I got to build off of the language in Java, which I’ve never done much in before. I’m more comfortable with it. But Python’s still better,” says Obas.

Besides the research component, Mason REU participant Melanie Gipson, a student at Georgia State University, says the experience helped her to build soft skills that are an important part of any research practice.

“It gave me more confidence to rely on people, confide in them, and learn from them,” she says.

Matthias Eyassu, another Mason student in the program, says a memorable lesson from his REU experience was learning how to balance breadth with depth when it comes to applying a research approach.

“It’s tempting to find all these exciting connections when researching a topic. Sometimes it’s better to exercise more discipline and stay focused—that’s something I’ve learned,” says Eyassu.

Even though REU has wrapped up, the remainder of the summer will not necessarily be spent in vacation mode for participants. Some will move towards career and research goals.

“I’ll be spending the next month or two starting my PhD applications,” says Mason student and REU participant Nate Krasner.

“I’ll be training for technical interviews and getting more training in coding,” says participant Hana Genana, a student at the University of Rochester.

Others discovered they are simply looking forward to graduation, sans grad school.

“I definitely don’t want to get my master’s,” says Obas. “I’m interested in continuing research, but I’m looking forward to graduation.”

All in all, REU was a good experience for the participants, and it’s something they highly recommend.

“Most of us feel it was an all-around good experience,” says Gipson. “I think it will lead to a lot of great things.”

Mentorship was emphasized during the REU program, and was an important component, says Rangwala, as it helped to ensure students had what they needed.

“We could not have had such a successful REU without our mentors,” says Rangwala, who mentored four Mason students. “It was an imperative interaction for students to understand the projects they were working on, discuss challenges, brainstorm, and receive support.”

Rangwala offers a special thanks to Mark Snyder who co-directed the program with him and all REU Mentors: Craig Yu, Kevin Moran, Thomas LaToza, Amarda Shehu, Antonios Anastasopoulos, Parth Pathak and Jana Kosecka.

Learn more about REU