Four engineering students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute spent their summer in Spain researching advanced materials at the Madrid Microelectronics Institute (IMM). The eight-week fellowship, funded by the National Science Foundation through an International Research Experiences for Students grant, offered the students a chance to perform leading-edge research while living, working, and learning in an international, multicultural environment.
In addition to living together in an apartment in the countryside surrounding Madrid, the four students worked in theNanoengineering Thermoelectrics Laboratory at IMM. Alongside students and researchers from Spain and other countries, they worked to advance and optimize new procedures for manufacturing thermoelectric materials. These materials, which generate electricity when heat flows through them, could play a role in the development of next-generation clean energy technologies.
Beyond the challenge and rigor of scientific research, the students experienced the nuances of living and working in another culture.
“Working in the lab in Madrid was just a completely different experience,” said Michelle Decepida, a junior in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering (MANE) at Rensselaer. “The work habits seem very relaxed there, but in a way that is maybe more efficient, and very serious and competitive. It was very interesting.” She said the language among the research group at IMM was a combination of Spanish and English.
Another of the students, Adriana Rojas, a senior in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, said the atmosphere was very comfortable and the international group of labmates interacted like a big family.
“We were always together. We’d eat lunch together every day, and afterwards we would always go down to have a coffee break together. The group dynamic is very important, so no one is really ever on their own. It’s a really nice thing that is engrained in the culture there,” Rojas said.
The other students who participated in the fellowship were Eduardo Castillo and John Oxaal, both doctoral candidates in MANE at Rensselaer. Prior to their trip, three of the students took a semester-long independent study with Diana Borca-Tasciuc, the project leader, or her collaborator and husband, Theodorian Borca-Tasciuc, both associate professors in MANE at Rensselaer. The students learned experimental techniques and theoretical aspects relevant to the projects carried out in Madrid.
“Along with living in Spain and learning about another culture, these students were performing leading-edge research that could have important applications in nanomanufacturing and energy conversion,” Diana Borca-Tasciuc said. “Their trip to Madrid was challenging, productive, educational, and — from listening to them — a lot of fun. I think they’ll remember it for the rest of their lives.”
To read a firsthand account by Oxaal of the trip, and to learn more about the research projects the students worked on at IMM, see: http://approach.rpi.edu/2011/09/23/guest-blogger-john-oxaal/
Bismuth telluride is a promising thermoelectric material. While at IMM, the students worked to develop a procedure for producing high-quality films of bismuth telluride on a silicon substrate using a process called pulsed electrodeposition. Their second goal was to design and install experimental equipment to measure how efficient the thin films are in converting heat to electricity. Measuring the conversion efficiency of large quantities of materials is a common procedure, but it is still quite challenging to perform the measurements on thin films measuring only hundreds of nanometers thick.
The four Rensselaer students arrived at IMM in July, and returned home in August. During their time in Spain, they traveled on the weekends. One lesson they learned early on was about round-trip bus tickets, which are sold not at bus stations but at tobacco shops. Along with exploring Madrid, they made time to travel around Spain. One particular highlight, Oxaal said, was their visit to the famous San Fermin festival in Pamplona — the annual spectacle where some brave souls “run with the bulls” down the city’s streets.
“We learned a lot about the Spanish culture during our stay,” Oxaal said. “The researchers at IMM were all graduate students or post-docs. Everyone, and especially our overseas research adviser and host, Dr. Marisol Martin-Gonzalez, was very welcoming and helpful, making our stay extremely enjoyable and instructional. We became fast friends and found ourselves wishing we could stay longer.”
In 2009, the Institute launched its Rensselaer Education Across Cultural Horizons (REACH) as an exchange program for engineering students. REACH has since evolved to include all international opportunities for undergraduates, including semester-long study abroad and exchange opportunities, short-term and faculty-led international programs, and other international experiences such as internships and service learning. Today, all students are encouraged and expected to take advantage of some sort of international experience during their four-year undergraduate education.
“Every Rensselaer student — whether an engineer, scientist, architect, artist, scholar, or manager — can benefit from studying abroad, participating in an overseas internship, or some other international experience,” said Prabhat Hajela, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. “The benefit is too great to ignore.”
For more information on Diana Borca-Tasciuc’s research at Rensselaer, visit:
For more information on study abroad, overseas research fellowships, and other international experiences at Rensselaer, visit: