Class of '09, Major: Mechanical Engineering
Prof. Chad Korach
"With research ... it’s very different when you actually do experiments and have to analyze the data and apply your knowledge . . . I get different situations, situations where I have failures. I have to find out the reasons why the experiment failed or why it worked and integrate the theories into what I do actually. . . "
Interview: read more >>
Photo (left): Prof. Korach, Philip Rogers (Oklahoma State Univ. undergraduate/IREE participant), and Polly Lo, at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India
Researcher of the Month
Testing environmental degradation of fiber-reinforced composites, checking nanocomposites for low friction and wear applications, applying nano-biotribology to dental science and medicine applications—it all happens at the Laboratory for Nanotribology and Wear Mechanics! And what better place for an ME major to test one's mettle, put one's nose to the grindstone, and cut one's teeth in research?
For the last 2+ years, the Lab has been the training ground for Polly Lo, Mechanical Engineering major, class of 09. Following graduation, Polly will stay in the NYC area and take up a management trainee position working at Con Edison. But it is her hands-on research experiences—and even, in her own words, her "failures" (i.e. what she has learned from experiments that were not successful)—to which Polly Lo attributes being so well prepared for the next phase of her professional career.
Polly is particularly thankful to Prof. Chad Korach whose mentorship has given her a sound knowledge of carbon fiber composite materials and whose National Science Foundation grant provided her with the opportunity to travel to Kanpur India last summer to work for 10 weeks at the Indian Institute of Technology as part of an International Research and Education in Engineering (IREE) award. (The NSF-IREE program is designed to provide early career researchers with exposure to research methods and practices in engineering at locations outside of the United States as part of training a global engineering workforce for the 21st century. Only 5% of all U.S. engineering students take part in overseas study during their academic career!]
Polly recently presented two posters at the 09 URECA Celebration of Undergraduate Research & Creativity, including: "The effects of environmental degradation on the mechanical strength of carbon fiber reinforced composites;" as well as her senior design team project supervised by Prof. Yu (Joe) Zhou, "Steerable Pedalo." Last year, in addition to presenting two posters, Polly had the chance to give a talk at the inaugural Nanotechnology Studies symposium, entitled "Mechanical and Erosive Damage in Dental Enamel Microstucture." Polly Lo is a member of Pi Tau Sigma Mechanical Engineering Honor Society, and is also a member and treasurer of a Chinese Christian fellowship. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Polly is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, and has Level 3 proficiency in Japanese.
Below are some excerpts of her interview with URECA Director, Karen Kernan.
Karen: How did you first become involved in research?
Polly: I started getting interested in research in my sophomore year. I emailed different professors in my department. I knew Prof. Korach when I took a course with him in the first semester in my sophomore year. And I knew his lab was recruiting undergraduate students so I contacted him and then got started in the second semester of sophomore year. I really got actively involved in doing research the summer after sophomore year, going into my junior year. For my whole junior year, and now my senior year, I’ve been doing research with Prof. Korach.
What kind of work do you do in Prof. Korach's Lab?
I’ve worked several projects with him as my advisor. My main projects are about composite materials. …I do mechanical testing, and investigate the properties and the environmental effects on the material. I did a project on dental enamel also.
What are your plans after graduation?
I got a job offer from Con Edison so I’m really happy. It’s a management trainee program.
How has doing research prepared you for your career?
It’s a lot different from what you learn from a textbook. For my coursework, usually you read a textbook and then apply formulas in different situations. With research, it’s an application, but it’s very different when you actually do experiments and have to analyze the data and apply your knowledge. It’s more hands-on experience. I get different situations, situations where I have failures. I have to find out the reasons why the experiment failed or why it worked, and integrate the theories into what I do actually. After I have the hands-on experiences, it makes me understand the material even more after I learn it from my course. It’s different—and very useful.
Is there a benefit to doing research in the summer?
You can get more focused. When you have coursework, you have a lot of projects and homework, so you can’t really focus on both. You focus on coursework. So it's really a good experience to have full time research in the summer.
Tell me about your experience last summer working in India.
The program I was in (IREE) was a year-long program. Prof. Korach told me about this opportunity. For my whole junior year, I had to work continually on composite materials to get myself more prepared about the knowledge of the material, and the tests I was going to do in India…The summer program in India was actually a continuation of what I had been doing in my junior year.
Was it a very different kind of experience, doing research in India?
The summer in India was very different. I was at an Institute of Technology, so girls are already in the minority. I’m the minority of the minority because I’m Asian also. And I was the only girl in the lab. The rhythm and how they do things is also very different.
What about your experience as a female engineering student here at Stony Brook?
Here it is fine! Because I’m used to the environment. Girls are a minority in my class but I still have girl-friends with me, in my classes. . . In India, I was the only one!
How many hours a week do you typically work on your research projects?
I don’t really have a stable # of hours I put in every week. Sometimes if I have to give a presentation, I may work 7 hours, or 10 hours per week just to get things done. Sometimes projects or homework or midterms get in the way, and I”ll take care of them first.
What is Prof. Korach like as a mentor?
He’s very patient, very very patient. He’s very calm. This one time, I screwed up an experiment when I messed up the sample and couldn’t use it anymore. I was freaked out, really freaked out… You know, he didn’t blame me or anything. He just guided me to how to fix the problem.. …He’s a very good mentor to work with. He’s very willing to deal with your questions and problems. Really helpful. He’s also been really helpful in trying to find opportunities for me.
Do you have any "worst" or “best” days of research you'd like to talk about?
Last summer, my research work in India was not very successful because I had the wrong samples for my tests. The samples are shipped from Oklahoma State University but since it would take too long for Oklahoma State University to ship another pack of materials.... I had to work with the wrong materials to see what kind of results I could get. My mentor and I tried different ways to get it to work …but at the end it didn’t work. In the beginning of my 10 weeks there, it was a little bit discouraging …but it was also a very good lesson for me. Everything doesn't always go smoothly doing research work.
For my "best day", yes....last year, at the URECA Celebration, there was a nanotechnology symposium. I went there and presented my project on dental enamel. I was pretty nervous. Before I gave the presentation, Prof. Korach took me outside and briefed me about what I was going to talk about ..Then I presented it. I don’t think I was very good with the presentation. But I answered the questions correctly. And I felt like it was a big accomplishment. I really liked it.
This year, you presented two projects at the URECA Celebration.
One for senior design and one for my own research project. When I see the poster printed, I feel very satisfied. URECA was a very good experience. . . And I had good conversations with faculty. Sometimes I am nervous that they will ask questions that I really don’t know the answer to …but I found that they encourage me. I’m really happy that they’re encouraging me, that there’s something I’m doing that has support.
Overall, would you say you've had a pretty good experience at SB?
I love the department. It’s not a very big department. In the senior year, all the faculty members recognize you by your name and by your face. I feel very good about this department. Walking down the hallway, you see professors, say hi . . we have conversations, small talk. So I love this department!