September 30, 2022
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$340,000 NSF grant to help undergrads gain hands-on research experience

Research assistant professor to lead establishment of Research Experience for Undergraduates program

Research Assistant Professor Caitlin Light, at left, teaches Inessa Nicolo, Madison Muscente and Gayathri Nair, all independent study students and graduates of the First-year Research Immersion program, how to prepare a biofilm tube reactor that is used to grow biofilms. Research Assistant Professor Caitlin Light, at left, teaches Inessa Nicolo, Madison Muscente and Gayathri Nair, all independent study students and graduates of the First-year Research Immersion program, how to prepare a biofilm tube reactor that is used to grow biofilms.
Research Assistant Professor Caitlin Light, at left, teaches Inessa Nicolo, Madison Muscente and Gayathri Nair, all independent study students and graduates of the First-year Research Immersion program, how to prepare a biofilm tube reactor that is used to grow biofilms. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

Caitlin Light, PhD ’17, a research assistant professor at Binghamton University’s First-year Research Immersion program, recently won a $340,298 grant from the National Science Foundation to support research opportunities for early career students from institutions where such opportunities are limited.

As one of the largest awards that an FRI research educator has ever received, this grant will be used to establish a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site at Binghamton.

The REU site is centered around the study of microbial biofilms, which are communities of bacteria and other microorganisms that grow attached to a surface or interface within a self-secreted extracellular polymeric slime matrix.

“The NSF has been promoting these REU sites for a long time to try to get more undergraduates involved in research across the country,” Light said. “I was really interested in putting a new spin on REU sites — bringing my expertise from our FRI and SRI [Summer Research Immersion] programs will help me to build a better-mentored REU site experience. This site will give students more time working in teams of peers and faculty to create a more authentic and structured experience than you would see in a traditional REU site.”

Binghamton’s REU site will support the training of 10 students for 10 weeks during the summer from 2022-24. These students will be undergraduates from schools with limited research opportunities and from historically under represented groups.

“The cool thing about NSF REU programs is that the majority of the costs go directly to the students participating in the research,” she said. “Ninety-two percent of the budget is to give students stipends for the summer, provide housing, provide meal allowances, cover travel expenses and so on. The grant will provide more access for students and ensure that money is not a barrier to research.”

Outside of providing research opportunities, the goal of the program is to produce influential research and build knowledge on microbial biofilms in order to help solve problems caused by biofilms in the world around us. Diversity and inclusivity are key aspects of this program, and the Binghamton site will work to ensure a positive outcome for all, not just those students who have a lot of research experience.

“Being able to provide these opportunities to students is very important to me,” Light said. “For my undergrad, I went to a very small liberal arts school that didn’t have a lot of high-impact research opportunities. I happened to luck onto some undergraduate research opportunities, one of which was at Binghamton University, and those truly changed my career trajectory. If it weren’t for those opportunities, I wouldn’t have discovered my love for research, and I certainly wouldn’t be doing what I am today. I want to be able to help students with similar backgrounds to mine to find their way in STEM and have an opportunity to do even bigger and better things in science.”

The REU program will provide high-quality, well-mentored research opportunities to students early in their college careers so that they have sufficient time to pursue their projects, build scientific and professional skills, and prepare to be competitive in STEM. Students will learn how research is conducted, and many will present the results of their work at scientific conferences.

“I hope that this experience will allow students to build confidence in their abilities as well as help them find an identity and sense of belonging in STEM,” Light said. “There are a lot of students who don’t feel like they fit the mold or feel as if they don’t belong. By creating this community and structured mentorship, we can give students the comfort they need to build their confidence, allowing them to leave here excited for new research experiences and prepared to make an impact in STEM.”