Undergraduate research is an outstanding opportunity to experience chemistry “beyond the classroom.” We love having undergraduate researchers in our group, and welcome inquiries from interested students!
If you would like to learn more about undergraduate research opportunities in our group, please check out our frequently asked questions, below, and contact Prof. Laaser with any questions!
What do undergrads do in our lab?
In our lab, new undergraduate researchers are paired with a current graduate student and spend their first semester in the lab shadowing the graduate student and learning key experimental or computational techniques. After the first semester, undergraduates who have demonstrated mastery of the key techniques and good adherence to our lab safety guidelines will be given a piece of the project to carry out independently (though with ongoing guidance from their graduate student mentor, of course!). Throughout, undergraduate researchers are integrated into all of our group activities, including group meetings and group outings.
While the specific techniques you'll learn will depend a lot on the project you join, past undergraduates have worked on everything from synthesis of novel monomers and polymers to characterization of the materials properties of polymers using our rheometer, and even computational modelling of polymeric materials. Regardless of project, you can also expect to have the opportunity to learn basic programming and data analysis skills in python and/or MATLAB.
What should I do if I want to get involved?
First off, reach out to Dr. Laaser by email and tell her you're interested! We keep a list of interested students to contact when new openings become available, and emailing Dr. Laaser is the fastest way to get on this list.
When new openings become available, Dr. Laaser will contact ALL students who have expressed interest with a short survey about their goals and interests. She will then begin matching students to the available project(s). While we often have more students interested than we are able to offer positions to, we will keep anyone who doesn't get matched to a project on our list for future openings.
Finally, if you are interested, you are welcome to attend our weekly group meetings even if we aren't yet able to offer you a spot in the lab. In most group meetings, one or more students give presentations on their recent progress on their projects, so this is a great way to learn more about what the lab does and get a feel for the group's personality. If you would like to attend group meetings, just let Dr. Laaser know and she will send you the current schedule.
Can I get paid for working in the lab?
During the academic year, most undergraduate researchers participate in research for credit, through CHEM 1710. However, paid positions for students with federal work-study awards are sometimes also available - if you would like to explore this option, please don't hesitate to let Dr. Laaser know.
During the summer, we typically have a small number of paid positions available for undergraduate researchers. Preference for these positions goes to students who have already been members of the lab for at least one semester, but will be opened up to new students if extra positions are available. The department also offers several fellowships supporting summer research, and we will happily work with continuing students to put together competitive applications.
Eligible students from other universities may also apply through Pitt's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program - please reach out to Prof. Laaser and the SURF program director, Prof. Koide, for more information.
What classes do I need to have taken before I apply?
Trick question - none! While it is helpful for students to have completed Pitt's organic chemistry sequence (including lab) before joining our group, it is not required, and we do sometimes have projects suitable for first- and second-year undergraduate students with a strong high-school chemistry background. This is something we'll take into consideration as we match students to projects, as described above, so if you are interested, go ahead and reach out!
If you join the lab, you should definitely plan to take Dr. Laaser's Synthesis and Characterization of Polymers course (CHEM 1600) if you can. Since most students don't take this course until their senior year, though, we absolutely do not expect that you will have taken it before you start, and we will help you learn the key ideas you need for your research as you go.
If you are interested in polymers, we also highly recommend pursuing the Materials Chemistry option within the chemistry major - in our totally not-at-all biased opinion, it is the BEST!
What kinds of projects can I expect to work on if I join the lab?
Our lab's research is, broadly speaking, at the intersection of physical chemistry and polymer science. This means that we do both a lot of polymer synthesis and a lot of physical characterization; generally, our goal is to make polymers in which we are controlling some feature of interest (like hydrophobicity or molecular weight) and investigate how that variable affects the properties of the materials.
While the projects available from semester to semester vary, past undergraduate researchers have worked on some or all of the following:
- characterization of the phase behavior and viscoelastic properties of complexes of charged polymers
- infrared spectroscopy to investigate hydration of polymers that form ordered co-crystals with water
- computational modelling of the self-assembly and tensile properties of block copolymers with force-responsive units in the polymer chain
- synthesis and characterization of different types of polymer networks
When you join the group, you will be paired with a graduate student mentor, and you will work with them on a piece of their project. You do not need to come up with your own project! However, if, after working in the group for a couple of semesters, you would like to propose an idea of your own, Dr. Laaser will be happy to discuss - as long as it is closely-enough aligned with our group's expertise and interests, we can try to make it happen!
Can I do my senior writing requirement (Chem W) in your group?
Short answer: yes! Most students who engage in undergraduate research in our group earn their writing credit by preparing a journal article-style report on their undergraduate research project during their last semester in the lab. If you do participate in undergraduate research, this is definitely the way to go.
Even if you do not join us for undergraduate research, though, Dr. Laaser is happy to supervise chemistry writing projects in the areas of polymer science and/or physical chemistry. These writing projects can take the form of anything from an in-depth literature review to a magazine-style article for a general audience, or even a technical report on a type of instrument. If you have an idea you'd like to discuss, please reach out to Dr. Laaser by email.
Whichever route you go, you can expect to work through several revisions of your document with Dr. Laaser to refine both your content and your writing style. A representative "syllabus" outlining the steps and expectations for completing the chemistry writing requirement in our group can be found here - Dr. Laaser will discuss this with you in more detail during your first meeting.
What do undergraduates who work in your group do after they graduate?
Our past undergraduate researchers have gone on to wide range of different opportunities following graduation, including but not limited to:
- industry & government lab research positions
- graduate school (PhD programs) in chemistry and engineering
- teaching certification programs & other teaching opportunities
Regardless of the project you take on, research in our group provides you with the opportunity to learn a wide range of transferrable skills that will put you in a good position for whatever you are interested in doing next!