Published: June 23, 2020 By

Participating students Sammy Ausman, Mason Lyons, Izzie Strawn, Hannah Howard and Alex Evenchik meet virtually on Zoom

The Young Scholars have frequently connected and collaborated remotely during the summer program. Photo courtesy Mason Lyons.

With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting earlier this spring, the 2020 Young Scholars Summer Research Program had to go fully remote. But this year’s “visiting” students have been more than up to the challenge, adapting to the virtual program by learning new skills and connecting with research experts and engineering business leaders.

“It has been fantastic working remotely with the students,” program coordinator Associate Professor Timothy Whitehead said. “The students in the program are all engaged and ask careful and thoughtful questions during our Zoom chats.”

While over a dozen students typically participate in the 10-week program—with hands-on lab experience, classroom instruction, and field trips for outdoor recreation or to research facilities like NREL—five students are participating this year, conducting their research and attending a weekly workshop with faculty remotely.

Typically, the program offers visiting students the opportunity to enjoy Boulder and Colorado through outdoor activities and group outings.

“Our big draw—besides the world-class science and scientific environment—has been the city of Boulder and surrounding areas," Whitehead said. "It’s easy to recruit the top students to come here when they’ve spent a summer on Pearl or up in the foothills.”

While the program was unable to offer students these experiences this year, Whitehead and the participating faculty and staff quickly pivoted to weekly remote career development workshops and professional meetings over lunch.

“In recent weeks, students have met biotech scientists, nanotech company co-founders, graduate students and professors,” Whitehead said.

Two of the participating students are Mason Lyons of the University of Iowa and Alex Evenchik of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lyons is originally from La Motte, Iowa, and studies chemical engineering at the University of Iowa. He has interests in renewable energy and sustainability, including the history of the green movement and communication. A classmate recommended the program, and CU Boulder’s association with the National Renewable Energy Lab provided an additional incentive to apply.

“My research project aims to model an electrochemical cell, such as a hydrogen fuel cell, to calculate its overall efficiency using a voltage input which significantly increases the operating rate of the cell,” Lyons said. “I have learned about electrochemical cell reaction kinetics, equivalent circuit modelling, and how to solve these models in Matlab.”

While Lyons was looking forward to visiting Boulder in person, the program’s switch to a remote experience provided a new, challenging experience that expanded his skillset.

“I did not have any previous experience with modelling and computational experimentation, but it has been intriguing to learn how these techniques are used in conjunction with lab experiments,” Lyons said. “It has initially been hard to work for long periods of time because I am still working out the kinks for my Matlab code and incessantly am running into bugs. My mentor and I have had open and plentiful communications making troubleshooting easy on me.”

Alex Evenchik hails from Cambridge, Massachusetts and is majoring in materials science and engineering at MIT. While looking up professors who were conducting research at the intersection of materials science and biology, he connected with Assistant Professor C. Wyatt Shields IV, who recommended that he apply to the Young Scholars Summer Research Program.

“Beside Dr. Shields’ research, I was attracted to this program by the opportunity to spend a summer conducting research in a new environment so that I could broaden my view of research programs at different schools,” Evenchik said. Spending a summer in Boulder also appealed to him, but he has pressed on with his research despite not being able to visit in person.

“I’m using computational fluid dynamics software to give insight into and support the experimental design process of the PhD student I’m working with,” Evenchik said. “I’ve mainly been focusing my time on understanding the multi-physics software we are using, as well as looking more deeply into the fluid dynamics that describe the phenomena we are interested in utilizing.

"Although I haven’t been on campus, I still feel like the work I’m doing has a clear role in the lab’s objectives. Of course, not having the ability to interact daily and as easily work things out together makes the work more difficult, but daily meetings and the ability to call when needed has made the process relatively smooth.”

Whitehead sees two major takeaways for the “visiting” students.

“I hope that all students will have made a contribution in their host research laboratory, with the attendant dedication and persistence that takes,” Whitehead said. “Most of this year’s cohort had previous wet lab experience. I hope that the students now have a newfound appreciation for the excellent computational work done in the department.”

The Young Scholars Summer Research Program concludes in August.