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Diversifying STEM, One Summer at a Time – Georgia Tech College of Engineering

SURE Program returns to in-person, as more than 40 STEM undergrads from around the nation spend the summer at Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech’s commitment to diversifying STEM fields doesn’t stop after spring finals. For the past 30 years, the College of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Education and Diversity (CEED) has hosted college students from across the nation for a 10-week summer research program designed to attract highly competitive students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM, including women, into graduate school.
This year’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) welcomed 44 juniors and seniors from across the nation. This cohort, which participated in-person for the first time since 2019, worked in labs throughout all eight of the College’s Schools and Departments. Building a research portfolio is just one part of experience. SURE also provides professional development and social opportunities, in addition to stressing the importance of integrating principles of inclusion and diversity into research.
A handful of this year’s SURE students were from Georgia Tech, with a few others enrolled at University System of Georgia institutions. Most students were from out of state, including from other top-tier research universities. Nearly half of the cohort consisted of first-generation college students. The majority of the group consisted of Black and Hispanic/Latinx aspiring researchers.
A number of universities host SURE programs. Georgia Tech’s began in 1992 and is among the nation’s longest running summer programs. The main priority is to recruit students to consider Georgia Tech for graduate school from underrepresented backgrounds. 
“The goal of Georgia Tech’s SURE program is to diversify STEM,” said Lakeita Servance, who manages the program. “We recruit many students from underrepresented backgrounds, which paves the way for them to gain exposure to STEM research, set up a strong mentorship support system, and helps them to see Georgia Tech as a place where they can truly belong.”
SURE student Elif Kilic (top) and her grad student mentor, Seongwook Woo, use a microspraying technique to create plastic plates for testing.
This summer, each student participated in a unique research project and worked one-on-one with a professor and graduate student mentor to further their knowledge on a specific topic.
Elif Kilic is in her fifth year of the Georgia Tech and Emory University Dual Degree program and currently studies in the school of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE). Her interest in research started in high school when she worked in a research lab at the University of Florida detecting heavy metal contamination in water. Last spring, she joined the lab of Kostas Konstantinidis, the Richard C. Tucker professor in the CEE school. The Konstantinidis lab focuses on the interface of microbial ecology with engineering and computational biology, and Kilic’s specific research focuses on the degradation of plastics into the environment.
“I applied to the SURE program to continue my research on degradation of plastics into the environment in the Konstantinidis Lab, which will ultimately help marginalized communities,” said Kilic. “I’ve explored many different fields of research since high school, but one common thread between all my experiences was a desire to have a positive impact in communities harmed by ecological factors.”
“The SURE program always brings in top talent. Summer students who have worked in my lab in the past have always had a significant impact on our research,” said Richard Neu, a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering who focuses on predicting the fatigue behavior of various materials.
Ellen Mazumdar, an assistant professor in the Woodruff School, has hosted multiple SURE students in her lab throughout the years and appreciates the hard work and dedication from both the students and the graduate mentors in the program. Her SURE student, Danny Goetz, and his graduate mentor, Sebastian Mettes, generated and successfully tested new ideas for 3D printing unconventional conductive materials. Mazumdar hopes their process will become more widely used to create a variety of unique mechanical or electrical components.
“During the pandemic, it’s been more difficult for students to find hands-on research experience,” said Mazumdar. “Now that the SURE program is in-person again, we hope to get the students excited about the experience of conducting physical experiments and formulating scientific questions with peers in the lab space.”
SURE student Danny Goetz (left) with grad student Sebastian Mettes in Ellen Mazumdar’s lab.
Beyond the labs, the SURE program offers students many professional development and social opportunities. The SURE Weekly Seminar Series brought in faculty members from across campus to discuss their research, journey in academia, and how they overcame various barriers to succeed in their field. The speaker line-up included professors Manu Platt, Mitchell Walker, and Raheem Beyah, dean of the College of Engineering and Southern Company Chair.
“I was interested in Georgia Tech because of the diversity in the SURE program,” said Courtney Young, a computer engineering major at the University of Nebraska – Omaha who worked with Xiaming Huo, the A. Russell Chandler III Professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. “I really wanted to engage with a group of diverse people and work with students who are like me, which is why I chose this research program over a similar one closer to my home.”
Each Friday, SURE hosted a “Brown Bag Session,” inviting local industry partners to teach students about important job skills and talk about what their positions entail. Students also toured companies such as The Home Depot and T3 Labs, participating in hands-on activities and networking. The Home Depot industry tour was coordinated by a previous SURE student who wanted to give back to the program 12 years after she graduated.
As one of SURE’s major sponsors, Amazon hosted attendees at their Atlanta corporate office for “Amazon Day,” educating students about opportunities within their company through STEM employee panel discussions and networking opportunities.
One important way that Tech’s SURE program ensures student success is through its layered mentoring infrastructure. Each student has a graduate mentor who works with them directly in the lab, a social mentor who helps them acclimate to both the Georgia Tech campus and Atlanta community, and the general program support, including graduate coordinators.
“It’s a true ecosystem of support, where students feel seen from the moment they arrive on campus and every step of the way throughout the program,” said Servance.
The program’s lead graduate coordinator, Elaida Dimwamwa, works as a liaison between the students and the program manager. As a graduate student in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, she knows firsthand what resources are most helpful to students who are interested in research. 
“Most of the SURE program focuses on the research, but we also try and think about what other skills make a good scientist,” said Dimwamwa. “That’s why we include other important workshops and seminars that cover topics like communication, conflict resolution, industry partnership, and grad school application planning.”
I really wanted to engage with a group of diverse people and work with students who are like me, which is why I chose this research program over a similar one closer to my home.
Courtney Young
Since the beginning of the SURE program in 1992, 75% of participants have gone on to attend graduate school, with half of them ending up at Georgia Tech. The relationships built between students and professors during the program sometimes leads to graduate researcher positions in that professor’s lab down the road.
“The program really attracts the best students to spend a summer at Tech and potentially see themselves here for grad school,” said Neu. “At least one former SURE student of mine has come back to Tech to get their master’s degree in my lab.”
Grad student Alexander Caputo (left) and SURE student Benjamin Pollard work in Richard Neu’s lab.
Benjamin Pollard, a mechanical engineering student from Mercer University, worked in Neu’s lab this summer. He said he applied to SURE to participate in the exciting new materials research being conducted at Georgia Tech.
“My plan is to go to graduate school and get my master’s degree, and Georgia Tech is at the very top of my list,” said Pollard, who studied the fatigue behavior of an alloy super-metal called XL 718 this summer. “Working in a materials science lab has really interested me in the research, and I plan to study materials science engineering in grad school now.”
Every year we have former students who tell us that they wouldn’t be where they were today without the program and ask how they can give back and contribute to the incoming cohorts. That kind of impact is really what we love to see.
Lakeita Servance
Mitchell Walker, a professor in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, believes that SURE is one of the best ways to find new talent and promising future graduate students.
“Seeking out and engaging top undergraduate students from across the nation is essential for our research programs at Tech,” said Walker.
SURE affects students’ career trajectories in other ways beyond providing possible paths to grad school. The different kinds of research that the cohort is exposed to through student presentations broadens their views on what it means to do research and the multitude of labs available to them. Students also make connections with their mentors and peers that last well past the lifespan of the program and help them in their future career.
“Our program connects students from all ages, backgrounds, and disciplines to work together, learn from each other, and form lifelong friendships,” said Servance. “Connections like these show how the program positively impacts students lives, and they go on to pay it forward to future generations who are coming through the program.”
Beyond the program’s impact on individual students, Georgia Tech’s SURE provides invaluable support for underrepresented students in an effort to diversify the field of STEM, both in academia and industry.
“It is very important to support underrepresented students and encourage their success in research and academia,” said Mazumdar. “The SURE program does a great job strengthening Georgia Tech’s commitment to inclusion and diversity.”
“Our SURE program has had such a major impact on the participants, and our goal moving forward is to continue to focus on providing opportunities for underrepresented student groups,” said Servance. “I’ve been able to witness the growth of this program over the years. Every year we have former students who tell us that they wouldn’t be where they were today without the program and ask how they can give back and contribute to the incoming cohorts. That kind of impact is really what we love to see.”
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