NSF Summer Research Preparing Southeast Students for STEM Careers


For some, the lazy days of summer are a welcome respite. And for others, like Southeast Missouri State University students Blake Trickey and Tyler Howard, the past couple of months have been spent facilitating artificial photosynthesis and working with 3D micro-lasers.

Trickey and Howard are spending the summer in National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) – one in the United States and the other overseas. The two are making the most of their time in preparation for careers in the sciences after graduation.

Blake Trickey

Trickey is working in the microelectronics photonics program at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville (UAF) to determine a more cost- and time-effective table top method to perform photolithography. The research involves using a laser to optically pattern an oxide to react with a metal to form a membrane, making artificial photosynthesis a reality.

“My process is a small step on this road,” he said.

Trickey says he’s in a lab from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily creating and testing interferometers to get the appropriate spacing needed for the patterning he’s doing. He also assists a graduate student in patterning Cuprous Oxide to test his methods.

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) exposes undergraduate students to the graduate school atmosphere, introducing them to the field of research and helping them explore the possibility of either pursuing research as a career or attending graduate school. The program has been ongoing since the 1950s.

“I have learned so much in the work of nanomanufacturing and the various applications of the field,” Trickey said, adding he also now has a better understanding of the interdisciplinary work of “communicating physics with people who specialize in chemistry.”

He says he’s had the opportunity to network with respected professionals in bioengineering and chemistry, and to visit with entrepreneurs in the Fayetteville area who have expanded their research in graduate school to establish their own companies. He also participated in a trip to Dallas to explore several nanomanufacturing companies, including Texas Instruments.

He hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in graduate school, become an expert in the field he chooses and possibly launch his own company like the entrepreneurs he’s met in Fayetteville. He’s hoping to build on the connections he’s made this summer and hopes his experience will help him narrow his choices about where to attend graduate school and what field to pursue.

At Southeast, he’s treasurer of the Astronomy Club, secretary of the Physics and Engineering Club, secretary of his fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, and will serve as president of the Southeast Marching Band this fall.

A Jackson, Missouri, native, and physics major at Southeast, Trickey says he’s always been intrigued by math and science. He credits his Southeast professors – Dr. David Probst, Dr. Michael Cobb, Dr. Peggy Hill, Dr. Jonathan Kessler and Dr. Yumin Zhang — for developing him into the student and innovator he has become.

“What excites me about the field is the wide variety of directions it can lead me,” he said. “I could go to medical school, become a data analyst or become an engineer. Having a physics education develops me as a more well-rounded student.”

Tyler Howard

Like Trickey, Howard spent the past two summers in the University of Arkansas’ Microelectronics and Photonics Program in an NSF REU. He’s expanding on that experience this summer in Paris, France, where he was awarded an NSF International REU through a partnership between the University of Michigan and Universite Paris-Saclay. The collaboration allows the University of Michigan to send eight juniors each year to Paris to work on a project with a professor in Paris. Some participants also collaborate with a faculty member at Michigan. He applied online and was accepted into the program.

“I think it is a great program to get science and engineering students started on their career path and let them gain experience in the field while networking with advisers and people from other universities,” he said.

Howard says it’s common to enter REUs with little knowledge of the project you are assigned.

“I have been able to learn a lot about my specific project,” he said. “I learned a lot with the theory, set-up and experimentation that can be involved with laser cavities, along with the fundamental operation, design and fabrication of these microcavities.”

He says he hopes to take away from his experience a broader understanding of optics, which he hopes to pursue in graduate school. He’s spent the summer working with 3D micro-lasers, fabricating barrel-shaped laser cavities and measuring the emission spectrum that results when excited via a laser. Then, he collects and analyzes the data to determine the laser’s operating modes.

Networking in a foreign country while experience a new culture also has been valuable, he said. He’s learning from University of Michigan professors as well as his research adviser in Paris. He’s also met other students in the program along with Fulbright Scholars. Outside of his research, he’s had the opportunity to explore France, visiting Notre Dame, Luxembourg Palace, the Eiffel Tower, the Catacombs, Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon, Gardens of Versailles and Sacre Coeur.

“Immersing yourself in another culture has been something completely new to me, where I have had to get used to the language, customs and travel around Paris,” Howard said. “It has been an amazing experience so far, and something that has really helped me see the world in a different way.”

Also a Jackson, Missouri native, Howard is a senior double-majoring in physics and engineering physics, mechanical applications option, with a mathematics minor at Southeast. He is a member of the Physics and Engineering Club and the Astronomy Club.

“I got interested in the field of physics and engineering because of the way the math and science interacted with one another,” he said. “The fields went hand in hand. It also was because of the way that these fields defined and can explain the world we see. I always loved to build things as a child, and that passion became focused on engineering later in life”

His long-term goals are to continue his education and research in the field of optics. After earning master’s and doctoral degrees, Howard says he hopes to land a career in research and development in a technology-based company.