Infinite Opportunities: Pratt Research Fellows

March 1, 2020

The Pratt Research Fellows program offers juniors the opportunity to pursue valuable research experience for three semesters and a summer

From the 2020 DukEngineer Magazine

A closeup view of a piece of metal machinery

A close-up view of a micro-camera design for neural imaging

One of the many things that makes Duke Engineering special is the immense availability of opportunities for undergraduate research. With the ability to work directly under distinguished professors, gain hands-on experience through on-site projects and even design their own experiments, students at Duke are constantly redefining the undergraduate research experience.

For any Pratt students looking to get more deeply involved with research, the Pratt Research Fellows program is a great opportunity. As a Pratt Fellow, students receive the opportunity to work with engineering faculty members on an intensive research project for a period of three semesters, including a summer research experience. This allows students to truly immerse themselves in their field of study and gain a better perspective of what engineering research entails.

Carmen Rawls, assistant dean for advising and outreach at Duke Engineering, has been a key facilitator of this research program. She said, "Undergraduate research experiences, like the one provided by the Pratt Fellows program, are very valuable to students who are considering applying to graduate school. They complete their undergraduate education with a better understanding of the research environment as well as the expectations and the responsibilities of a graduate student. They also gain exposure to more topics within their fields of interest."

Two students standing in front of a research posterTiff Wei, a senior majoring in civil engineering and current Pratt Fellow, believes the program has been instrumental in equipping them with the skills necessary for higher-level research. They are currently working on remote sensing research near the Upper Zambezi River Basin, located in South Africa. Their work involves analyzing satellite data to evaluate the long-term prospects of agriculture and uncertainty of climate projections in the region.

Talking about their biggest takeaways from the program, Wei said, "My work within my research group has helped me see the importance and relevance of my coursework as it applies to environmental research. I've learned to hold myself accountable for my work, to communicate proactively, to conduct research independently and to document my progress in detail."

Another important aspect of the program is the opportunity it provides for collaboration. Eric Wahlstedt, a BME senior and current Pratt Fellow, emphasizes that working with a team was integral to his learning process. "It is incredibly important to have a strong team to help you troubleshoot problems and assist you with overcoming the challenges that you face," said Wahlstedt. "I have a great lab team that I work with and I am always able to get help from them or ask them questions whenever I need."

A student working on a project in a machine shopEric is currently designing a micro-camera that can capture neural activity at higher resolutions. Speaking about his time as a Pratt Fellow, Eric said, "Even making mistakes in the process, and having to redo the experiment or design, was a learning experience. It allowed me to grow as an engineer."

Along with preparing students for their future endeavors in research, the Pratt Fellows program also enables students to truly identify and pursue subjects they are passionate about.

"It is most important for a Pratt Research Fellows Program applicant to demonstrate interest in conducting research, and to appreciate the joy of learning. Research projects provide opportunities to continue one's education through a quest of finding solutions to unanswered questions. This requires determination, perseverance and patience which are fuelled by the satisfaction of advancing in a research topic," says Rawls.

Students interested in applying may visit the Pratt Fellows website to find out more about projects that align with their own research interests, as well as the faculty involved with each project. Applications are open to all Pratt students in their junior year.

So, if you are still looking for the perfect research opportunity, you might not have to look much further. The Pratt Fellows program, with its variety of project topics, could be your stepping stone into the vast world of research.

Ria Thimmaiahgari is a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering.