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Summer First program offers new grad students early intro to research

The eight-week immersion into Stanford’s research culture is designed to help first-year PhD students find their place and thrive — personally and academically.
Summer First helps gives students time to acclimate to campus and the research culture at Stanford. | Photo by Nancy Rothstein

As a young girl growing up in Atlanta, Katheryn Kornegay often went to automobile shows with her dad, and was fascinated by the electric and solar cars but wondered why the price tag was always beyond what most people could afford.

That experience shaped her in interest in doing research on renewable energy, said Kornegay.

Kornegay is one of nearly 300 new first-year PhD students at Stanford School of Engineering. But unlike most of these fellow doctoral candidates, who started their programs in early September, she attended Stanford in a virtual way during the COVID-19 crisis as a participant in the Summer Opportunities in Engineering Research and Leadership Program.

Colloquially known as Summer First, the eight-week program is designed to provide an early introduction to Stanford life to incoming graduate students from communities who may be systemically minoritized in the field of engineering, who are the first in their family to pursue an advanced degree or who are from environments with limited exposure to Research 1 institutions.

Through Summer First, the School of Engineering exposes these students to a variety of campus resources and gives them time to explore the research environments in their doctoral programs. The students also engage in literature discussion groups, take part in professional development workshops, excursions and mentoring opportunities, and enjoy social activities to help foster a sense of belonging and community.

“One of our priorities at the School of Engineering is to create a welcoming, inclusive environment that will allow all our students to thrive and succeed in their academic and personal journeys,” said Lourdes Andrade, director of equity and inclusion at the School of Engineering. “The Summer First program for incoming PhD students is one of many initiatives that help us achieve that goal.”

Ngoc Tran, the school’s assistant director of graduate community, inclusion and outreach, said the students typically come from a range of interests and academic backgrounds, and when they arrive on campus (virtually or otherwise) they are connected to faculty mentors, whose role is to give them an early dive into Stanford’s research culture.

“Faculty mentors are an incredibly important part of the program,” Tran said. “They make it possible for our students to get a real feel for the School of Engineering environment, and also to make sure our students feel welcomed, included and part of our community.”

Kornegay, for instance, conducted her Summer First project under the mentorship of Reinhold Dauskardt, a professor of materials science, helping his lab study the feasibility of creating solar panels on transparent, flexible materials to mount on places like cars or phones or other curved surfaces.

Although she had the opportunity to visit Stanford while still an undergraduate at Pomona College, she felt the jitters common to students beginning graduate school. “Summer First is a great way to help students starting a PhD program get to know research groups and meet senior graduate students,” she said. Kornegay observed that her interactions with the Dauskardt lab helped her feel comfortable. “I’m glad I had this early way to ease into grad school before the other students arrived,” she said.

Summer First participant Ana De La Fuente Duran, a graduate of Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, worked with Will Chueh, an associate professor of materials science. A native of Monterrey, Mexico, De La Fuente Duran had come to the United States with her family as a girl. In 2018, while still an undergrad, she had the opportunity to do research in Chueh’s lab through Stanford’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), which helped her decide to return for her PhD. Working with Chueh again through Summer First gave her an additional eight weeks to consider the avenues of research she would like to pursue for the next several years.

“In a somewhat low-pressure environment I had a chance to start mapping out my plan, so that when I formally started my PhD studies, I would have a much more fully developed idea of what’s going on in my fields of interest, and what within those fields I might specifically want to address,” she said.

Chueh says that while Summer First students may get some research done during their eight weeks, the more important benefit is the opportunity to begin interacting with professors and peers. “I meet with students every other week, one-on-one, so I can see how they’re doing at polishing the skills essential to success in science: talking to other graduate students and postdocs, reading papers, synthesizing creative ideas and making presentations,” he said. “We help acclimate them to the research culture at Stanford.”

To help participants make the most of Summer First, the 2020 program also provided peer-level mentoring from Fikunwa Kolawole, now a second-year PhD student in mechanical engineering, who had participated in the eight-week 2019 session. A native of Nigeria, he received a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C., for his undergraduate degree before heading off to Stanford.

Kolawole said that in his case, Summer First’s biggest impact was how quickly it enabled him to take advantage of two of the distinguishing characteristics of graduate studies at Stanford: the ease of asking professors, inside or outside the student’s department, to serve as a PhD advisor, and the seamlessness of doing interdisciplinary research after finding a fit.

When he told his Summer First academic advisor, Marc Levenston, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, that he wanted to do research on devices and techniques associated with heart failure, Levenston pointed him to Daniel Ennis, an associate professor of radiology at Stanford School of Medicine and at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. “Now I’m a mechanical engineering student doing PhD research with a principal advisor at Stanford Medicine, thanks to connections I was encouraged to make during Summer First.”

Tran says that in a typical year, the Summer First program would have up to 20 students. Although the COVID-19 pandemic made that impossible this year, the team pivoted by creating a complementary week-long program called Summer Academic Immersion and Leadership (SAIL) to help a larger group of incoming first-year PhD students from underrepresented backgrounds learn how to effectively navigate the school’s research, academic and social environments.

Speakers acquainted students with university resources designed to help them in every aspect of their academic activities. Staff experts held workshops on topics including developing academic and personal resiliency, connecting with potential advisors, and writing and presenting scientific papers. Stanford Engineering faculty members held a “What I Wish I Knew” panel in which they shared stories and advice from their own journeys through graduate school.

In addition to such professional development programming, the team also organized social events including happy hours and game nights to give incoming graduate students impromptu opportunities to connect with one another.

Looking ahead, the team plans to continue to grow the Summer First program with increased representation and involvement from all departments. “Summer First is a key part of what we do here at the School of Engineering,” said Tom Kenny, professor of mechanical engineering and the school’s senior associate dean for student affairs. “And we’re looking forward to building on what we’ve accomplished to help assure the success of all Stanford School of Engineering students.”