In the Spotlight- Sujata Tank, '25
Sujata Tank is one of our most focused undergraduate researchers. We are grateful for her time and wish her much success this year! Article has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little about yourself and what originally made you decide to study Civil Engineering at Stony Brook?
My name is Sujata Tank, and I am currently a sophomore Civil Engineering student in the Honors College. I am from Smithtown where I’ve lived my whole life. Seeing that Stony Brook is so close to home and is an excellent public university, it was no question for me to come here. I liked the fact that the Civil Engineering major isn’t too large as compared to other universities, so I would be able to get to know the other students and professors in the major better. Additionally, the accelerated BE/MS program was very appealing to me since you can get the Master’s degree in just one extra year. My family also has connections to SBU: my father did his residency here and my older sister recently graduated from Stony Brook with her Psychology and Business degree along with her MBA. However, the main reason I wanted to study Civil Engineering at Stony Brook is to continue the research project I started at Stony Brook while I was still in high school. I joined the Dynamic Structures Lab in 2020 under the direction of Dr. Paolo Celli. I was so invested in the project that I started that wanted to continue it. I am proud to say that we have made a lot of progress since then.
You are one of the few undergraduates in our program who got involved in research activities in high school! Tell us about you research experience.
During my freshman year, a very special teacher from Smithtown High School East (HSE) encouraged me to join the Science and Technology Research class when I was in her Earth Science honors class. The following year, as a sophomore, I applied and was accepted. I started with the general basics of research with small in-house experiments more focused on biology since I didn’t know what else to do. My first project was called The Antimicrobial Ef ects of Turmeric, Honey, Cinnamon, and Ginger on E. Coli.
Still on the biology path, and after my sophomore year at HSE, I joined the Matus Lab at Stony Brook under the mentorship of Dr. Taylor Medwig-Kinney, a PhD Candidate at the time. I studied invasive cell behavior in C. elegans and traced it back to different transcription factors in the gene regulatory system. It was fascinating to see how topics I learned during the previous year in AP Biology were used in a real lab. Based on my previous, limited research experience, it was a shock to see how research at the university level took more time and patience. It was a long process and not something to be rushed.
As a junior at HSE, I started to think about my career and what I wanted to do in college. Through both of my summer research experiences, I realized that I wasn’t really interested in biology. I enjoyed problem-solving, critical thinking, and the act of carrying out experiments associated with research but not the topic itself. When I looked into different labs, I found that I was more drawn to tissue and cell structures and in school, my favorite subjects were math and physics. Seeing the commonality of the two, my father suggested that I should explore civil engineering. In order to gain experience in civil engineering to see if I would like to pursue it, I found the Dynamic Structures Lab at Stony Brook. It piqued my interest because I had never seen anything like it in school. I saw that one of the projects was about creating structures that can adapt to varying temperature environments. I reached out to Dr. Celli and he was eager to work with me! It was summer 2020, during the height of the pandemic, and I worked remotely with Dr. Celli . I created my own experimental setups myself using the materials I had accessible in my home. I fell in love with the creativity and the constant problem-solving aspects of it. Our project was studying the deformation of balsa wood in response to high humidity environments. Dr. Celli also taught me mechanics during our weekly meetings. Even though the experience was remote, and I didn’t really understand mechanics at the time, seeing how this project forced me to adapt and grasp new concepts was an unforgettable experience. After coming to Stony Brook, I joined the Dynamic Structures Lab again in Fall 2021. I continued my research in Dr. Celli's lab throughout 2021 and over this past summer through the PSEG Explorations in STEM program.
How is research different from when you were in high school vs. college?
After getting experience in college-style research, I loved how it was about the project itself. Research at the college level is not competitive like a science fair might be. Higher-level research in my experience is more comprehensive and a slower process as you have to take every detail into account. I didn’t realize in high school how dedicated professors are to their research– they do it for years on end which requires a lot of time and focus.
A notable way that research in college is different from research in high school is that it is not a specific class. Research in an established lab requires independent motivation and time management to schedule it along with academic priorities. However, I like how it is more structured and requires more guidance than just figuring out everything on your own as in high school. I enjoy how being a part of a lab group allows you to see how the concepts of one project can be applied to another, and see how they are interconnected. Additionally, the use of technology like 3D printing, force sensors, and programs like Abaqus used in college research to facilitate projects has been very interesting for me to learn.
Has being involved in research provided you a bit more perpsective on the courses
you currently taking?
Being in research has exposed me to topics in civil engineering that I have not covered in my classes yet. However, rather than dwelling on understanding everything fully, since I am only taking engineering statics now, it gives me good foresight into what I will learn in the coming years. I can see the concepts that I have learned so far applied in research. For example, eigenvalues, which I learned from linear algebra, are used to specify the buckling modes of our structure. Research allows me to see that concepts I usually learn and forget after an exam actually have applications in ways I wouldn’t have thought of. Also, being in engineering statics right now, I can begin to understand how forces act on structures with greater understanding than before. It gives me motivation and reassurance that I am taking all these classes for a reason. Most underclassmen don’t feel connected to the major yet as we don’t take civil-specific classes until junior year, so participating in research allows me to look forward to classes I will take in the future and feel focused on the major.
What recommendations do you have for your classmates who are not sure about being
involved in research?
I would recommend joining a lab even if they are unsure! Even if it is just for one semester, it is worth a try to see if you end up liking it since research is something to experience– you can’t get a feel for it without actually doing it yourself. Sometimes a project can be different than what is represented on a website, so the only way you can get a better picture of the projects underway is to reach out to the professor or graduate student on the project.
Reaching out and seeing what interests you does no harm and if it is what you want to do then it will give you an opportunity for a more well-rounded education in which you can apply what you’ve learned in class to real-life problems. Joining a lab, in my opinion, is also very beneficial by creating connections with other upperclassmen in the major, graduate students and the professor or Principal Investigator of the project. In this way, they can provide insights into what roadblocks you might experience and they can also give you guidance or advice from their own research experiences.
My final piece of advice is to make sure that you are truly interested in the project and possess a level of excitement for it since it requires self-motivation and having research feel like an extra assignment is not enjoyable. Real progress will happen with genuine interest.
What are some of your favorite fall activities?
One of my favorite fall activities is to watch the sunset at McAllister County Park in Port Jefferson or Long Beach in Smithtown. I enjoy going to haunted houses, ice skating, and carving pumpkins with my friends and family. I haven’t been apple-picking yet, so that is on my bucket list this year!