Cornell Engineering student RyanTo be honest, I didn’t even know research was something that people did in college until I got to Cornell. I thought engineering students took hard classes, looked for summer internships, and worked on some cool projects on the side (like project teams!). And while these are certainly all things that many engineering students do, I didn’t realize there were so many more possibilities to get involved.

It quickly became apparent that research was a popular option among students at Cornell as early as freshman orientation. Advisors and upperclassmen were telling me left and right to reach out to faculty whose research interested me. As a freshman with no experience who wasn’t even sure what to major in, it was a bit overwhelming at first. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to study, and it seemed like many of my peers already had highly specific research interests. So although research was on my mind as a possibility, I wasn’t sure what I would even want to research.

By the beginning of my sophomore year, I finally decided on my major, and the question of research came up again. Not even fully knowing what undergraduate research assistants do in a lab, I started to look through my department’s website for labs conducting research that interested me. I ended up emailing a few PI’s (Principal Investigator). I didn’t particularly get my hopes up, due to the difficulties of in-person research in the age of COVID-19. I was pleasantly surprised that the PI for the lab I was most interested in got back to me quickly.

Cornell Engineering student RyanAs a civil and environmental engineering double major interested in underground infrastructure and sustainability, Dr. Nair’s lab couldn’t have been a better fit. The Nair Lab researches sustainable cementitious materials for use in well-plugging. In late November, I had a Zoom call with Dr. Nair, who enthusiastically explained her research and ongoing issues and questions in the field. By January, I was in the lab starting to mix up cement slurry samples for testing in a rheometer. Now, I’m in the lab twice a week to test samples of cement slurry. The project I’m working on currently is the characterization of cement slurries with suspended magnetic particles. By applying an external magnetic field, the flow characteristics of the slurry change as it stiffens, which could be very beneficial for well drilling and plugging.

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time in the lab and am excited for what’s to come. This summer, I’m looking forward to (hopefully) continue research in the form of an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates). I have particularly come to appreciate all the guidance that Dr. Nair, her PhD students, and the Bovay lab staff provide for us undergraduate researchers. They are constantly in the lab, guiding us through the processes and developing our research interests and capabilities. They are always willing to answer questions and help at a moment’s notice. I feel that I have gained a lot of practical knowledge and good research habits in a relatively short period of time due to their hard work and guidance.

As a student in civil and environmental engineering, I feel confident in saying that CEE at Cornell is a phenomenal place to be an undergraduate researcher. There are a huge variety of labs at the forefront of cutting-edge research, spanning all the major subdisciplines of civil and environmental engineering. The faculty care deeply about undergraduate education, and actively encourage undergraduate participation. I often forget that CEE is a relatively small department in terms of total undergraduate enrollment because of the vast array of opportunities that exist in the department. It is possible to get quite involved as an undergraduate. I am excited to see where my research within CEE leads me throughout the rest of my time at Cornell.

~Ryan, civil and environmental engineering