Shu Zhu came to the United States from Qingdao, China, seven years ago planning to prepare for a career in business, as many international students do. But at North Carolina State University she discovered one of the glories of the U.S. system of higher education: the ability undergraduates have to explore options and change majors.
She got an early opportunity to work in a research laboratory under the tutelage of an engineering professor, alongside graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, all searching for breakthroughs in chemical and biomedical engineering.
Zhu soon switched majors to chemical engineering and now is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school in Philadelphia. She said the beauty of her educational path was that she could change her mind.
She credits the engineering professor, Michael Dickey, with encouraging her to excel. Even when she had “some crazy idea,” she said, “he would never say, ‘You cannot do this.’ He would always say, ‘You should try.’”
Dickey, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was honored in 2012 as one of North Carolina State’s outstanding teachers. He regularly puts undergraduates to work on lab projects, which include developing novel nanofabrication techniques and stretching liquid metals into forms that can hold their shape at room temperature.
He also has a gift for explaining things. Discussing why aluminum and copper make such good electrical conductors, he said it’s because of their “good thermal properties — when you sit on metal bleachers it feels really cold because they are removing heat from your body really fast.”
One of his favorite metals is gallium, a liquid metal with a thick, paintlike consistency. Dickey has found that if gallium is mixed with indium, the resulting alloy can be stretched into electrical wires. His team has put gallium through myriad tests, printing it in 3-D fashion, encasing it in rubbery materials, twisting it into different configurations and stretching it.
The team made earphones that extend 10 times their original length. “The sound quality doesn’t change at all,” Dickey said, “because it’s such a good conductor of electricity.”
Dickey focuses on new materials. Nylon was once a major breakthrough in material science, as was silicon. Dickey’s gallium-based alloy could prove to be the next. Potential applications include antennas, clothing, wallpaper and even newspapers.
Dickey’s lab, which has captured the attention of private industry, is typical of American higher-education programs in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
In addition to new materials, popular STEM fields for students include computer science, environmental conservation and 3-D printing, as well as fields related to providing the planet with food and energy.
The U.S. is the Number 1 destination for foreign students interested in studying science and engineering at the postsecondary level, according to the National Science Board.
At the undergraduate level, 33 percent of international students are enrolled in a STEM-related field. At the graduate level, roughly 57 percent of international students are pursuing STEM degrees. Two-thirds of them come from India and China. Foreign students seek out U.S. programs, educators say, for the high-quality education and meaningful research in state-of-the-art labs.
U.S. college life affords students opportunities to branch out and take courses in political science, entrepreneurship and the humanities. “It’s both the technical depth of what we do in the STEM fields,” said Charles Thorpe, provost at Clarkson University in New York, and “embedding that in a liberal arts education.” Living in dorms, leading student organizations and attending sporting events, he said, are important parts of a U.S. education.
In secondary school, Zhu, 23, learned lots of physics and math, “but wasn’t really enjoying it.” Students spent long hours solving problems and other exercises in preparation for China’s tough college entrance exam. “It wasn’t interesting scientific knowledge,” she said. Her attitude changed in Dickey’s lab, and so did her life trajectory.
The U.S. offers rich opportunities to study science, technology, engineering and math. These schools are the tip of the iceberg.
St. Olaf College
Located in Northfield, Minnesota, St. Olaf College has a renowned choir but is also a prodigious incubator of engineers and scientists. It ranks in the top 10 among four-year colleges in producing future Ph.D.s. Forty percent of its 3,000 students major in math, chemistry, biology, computer science or psychology.
In tandem with its STEM programs, St. Olaf emphasizes environmental conservation. Everything, from the food students eat to the construction of buildings to the curriculum itself, is guided by an appreciation for science and an effort to reduce man’s footprint on the planet. Scientists there work to reduce toxic waste associated with lab work.
The crown jewel of the environmental efforts is Regents Hall, a state-of-the-art science building that meets the strictest criteria established by the U.S. Green Building Council.
The college requires all students to take at least two science classes. A newly developed course promises nonscience majors an understanding of the science behind issues at the forefront of public debate today.
“We have the best of both worlds,” said Matthew Richey, associate dean for natural sciences and mathematics, with an elite program that prepares those future Ph.D.s but also provides other students a deeper understanding of math and science than the typical liberal-arts student gets in college.
University of California, San Diego
In Professor Darren Lipomi’s nanoengineering lab at the University of California, San Diego, students from Belarus, Thailand and Mexico are part of the research team working on solar energy — specifically, the pursuit of less expensive and less brittle solar panels.
That diversity is the norm in cutting-edge research settings, said the young chemical engineer. “People from different cultures have different approaches to similar problems, and if you’re in the room together, somebody will come up with a solution,” he said.
A normal solar cell is made of silicon, which is easily damaged in inclement weather. Lipomi is taking the silicon out and replacing it with a plastic material that’s not only more robust, but more economical.
Located near the Canadian border in Potsdam, New York, Clarkson University is known for its engineering programs and for graduating students who make higher starting salaries than their counterparts from Harvard University.
In 2012, 10 percent of the school’s 3,604 students were foreign nationals, many enrolled in STEM programs and learning entrepreneurship along with scientific research.
“Our model is taking the innovator by the hand through the commercialization process,” said Matthew Draper, executive director of the Shipley Center for Innovation. The center helps students with intellectual property rights, marketing research, branding, beta testing, fundraising and revenue generation. These are daunting steps that scientists find difficult to maneuver, Draper said.
Since 2010, the center has helped 116 startups, with 350 more in the pipeline. It helped Dami Adepoju, a recent Clarkson graduate from Abuja, Nigeria, break into the shoe business. Adepoju designed a four-way zipper that transforms one shoe into three, giving people with limited resources diverse styles.
Experts at the Shipley Center helped Adepoju come up with a 3-D model for his invention and build a market. They connected him with cobblers, built the zipper to his specifications and helped with pre-incorporation and partnership agreements. From Nigeria, Adepoju now runs Fini Shoes and plans to sell worldwide.
This article is by freelance writer Lucy Hood.