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Undergraduate lab fair opens doors to new research experiences

“The fair is a great opportunity to connect with a lab and learn more about the kinds of work you might be doing on co-op or after graduation,” says Nicholas Fresneda, E'21. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Nicholas Fresneda strode into the Curry Student Center Ballroom with high expectations, intent on finding an opportunity to work in one of the College of Engineering’s many cutting-edge research labs.

It was Sept. 19, 2016—exactly one year ago Tuesday—and Fresneda was eager to engage with faculty and research scientists at the fourth annual COE Undergraduate Lab Fair.

“I was primarily looking to learn something new that I couldn’t learn in class,” recalled Fresneda, now a second-year computer engineering major. “I also wanted to add to my resumé and thought that working in a research lab might help me decide if I had picked the right discipline.”

It didn’t take long for Fresneda to connect with COE Distinguished Professor David Kaeli, director of the Northeastern University Computer Architecture Research Lab. Known as NUCAR, the lab focuses on performance evaluation, emerging software technologies, and advanced storage systems, a perfect fit for a student with a curiosity for computing. “I’ve always been interested in graphics processors,” he explained, “and I wanted to learn how they worked.”

“There are things you can do in a research setting—things that no one has ever done before–that you can’t do in industry.”

Nicholas Fresneda E'21

Undergraduates like Fresneda can expand their knowledge through similar opportunities showcased at this year’s fair, which will be held on Tuesday in the Curry Student Center Indoor Quad and West Addition from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Students can explore the work of more than 30 research labs, covering everything from fluid mechanics and microbial ecology to nanosensors and robotic systems.

“The fair is a great opportunity to connect with a lab and learn more about the kinds of work you might be doing on co-op or after graduation,” Fresneda said. “A lot of labs are really open to working with freshmen and teaching you things you want to learn.”

NUCAR is a prime example, with more than two-dozen first-year students working in the lab every year. Fresneda worked closely with doctoral student Xun Gong, honing his understanding of the Linux operating system and the C programming language through his work on an architectural simulator for a popular graphics processing unit.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

His newfound knowledge of C and Linux helped him to excel in his “Embedded Design: Enabling Robotics” course—a class he took a semester or two earlier than the vast majority of other students—and compelled him to consider co-op in a research lab. “The experience piqued my interest in doing a research co-op,” said Fresneda. “There are things you can do in a research setting—things that no one has ever done before–that you can’t do in industry.”

According to Kaeli, the benefits of undergraduate research opportunities go both ways. Students like Fresneda gain career-building experience, he said, while the doctoral students who mentor them learn how to impart their knowledge to the next generation of problem solvers. “Undergraduates enter the lab with their excitement, academic talents, and curiosity,” he explained. “The sooner they join a lab, the earlier their career trajectory changes for the better.” Lab experience, he added, “helps students build resumés, qualifies them for future research experiences, and allows them to get to know at least one professor in their major.”

Fresneda is looking forward to amassing more research experience this year. He plans on attending the fair to scope out new opportunities, but he hasn’t ruled out a return to Kaeli’s lab. He advises all first-year engineering students to follow his lead and check out the event. “It’s definitely worth your time,” he said. “It could help you decide what you really want to do.”