Award recognizes Boppart's contributions to undergraduate research

ECE News

Susan Kantor, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • ECE Professor Stephen Boppart is the 2009 recipient of the Paul F. Forman Engineering Excellence Award for contributions to undergraduate research.
  • Boppart's interest in undergraduate research began when he was an undergraduate in ECE.
  • Boppart believes undergraduate research is important to undergraduates, graduate students, and professors.

Stephen Allen Boppart
Stephen Allen Boppart

ECE Professor Stephen Allen Boppart is the 2009 recipient of the Paul F. Forman Engineering Excellence Award. The award is sponsored by the Optical Society of America, a professional society in which Boppart was recently named a Fellow. Nominated by ECE Professor Shun-Lien Chuang, Boppart received this award for his contributions to undergraduate research.

“I’m thrilled to receive that award because [undergraduate research] is something that I really embrace and think is important,” Boppart said.

Boppart’s involvement in undergraduate research began when he was, in fact, an undergraduate. As a junior in ECE, Boppart approached ECE Professor Emeritus Bruce Wheeler to do research in his lab. That research project sparked Boppart’s curiosity in research and also led to his master’s thesis.

“One of the things that he provided to me was freedom--the freedom of an open lab to pursue my own ideas, run my own experiments, and really get involved,” Boppart said. “That’s what I do now, too. I give students the open opportunity to pursue the projects that they are interested in.”

Boppart joined Illinois in 2000, and since then, has had more than 30 undergraduate researchers. He encourages undergraduates to become involved in research.

“So many times, the undergraduates’ education is limited to the courses that they take,” Boppart said. “Just the ability to learn in a different forum and a different environment with research experiences, I think, really helps broaden their horizons.”

Students in Boppart’s group are asked to spend at least two semesters working on an undergraduate thesis, but students have stayed as long as three years.

Undergraduates work with graduate students and post docs, and many students will present their projects at symposiums on campus or at regional conferences.

“They will really spend enough time to be given independent projects,” Boppart said.

One of the most successful undergraduate research projects investigated the idea that optical coherence tomography (OCT), a technique used for imaging tissue, is sensitive to optical scattering measurements from neurons. By collaborating with faculty members and post docs, and learning about optical systems, the undergraduate student was able to show that when there is electrical activity in neural tissue, optical changes can be sensed. Her study resulted in a first-author paper published in a leading peer-reviewed journal, and a talk that she presented at a national conference.

Boppart considers undergraduate research to be beneficial to both the undergraduate researchers, and the graduate students and professors who work with them. For undergraduates, receiving credit toward senior design and comp II writing requirement are benefits of undergraduate thesis research. They are also able to show research experience when applying for graduate school or jobs. And as graduate students and post-docs become mentors, they gain confidence in their own knowledge.

“Undergraduates who come into the group may not always have the background in optics, or specialized knowledge, but they always ask, ‘How can I contribute? What role can I play if I don’t know this information?’” Boppart said. “I always tell them that what they bring is this ability to ask questions, because they always seem to ask the questions that we’ve overlooked.”

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