Joint research program powers undergraduates to new career paths

Written by
Brittany N. Murray
Oct. 3, 2022

In only its second year, the Princeton-Intel research experience for undergraduate students has already roughly doubled in size.

Nine students came to Princeton’s campus this summer for eight weeks of intensive lectures, courses and research projects. They each left excited about the prospects of academic and industrial research.

“I learned an incredible amount about computer architecture,” said Mukund Ramakrishnan, an electrical engineering student at Rutgers University who participated in this year’s program. “New concepts that I’ve never thought about or learned about before.”

Ramakrishnan said his first two weeks were focused on crash courses in RISC-V and vector processing. Eventually, he and the rest of his research group dived into major projects, such as writing vectorized algorithms.

“I really gained a firsthand understanding of how research is used to solve ordinary problems in computing,” he said.

“The main thing for me beforehand was that I didn’t think I was qualified to try this type of thing,” said Manya Zhu, a computer science student at Princeton who participated in the program. She said she had never done any real research. She didn’t know what it meant on a practical level to become a graduate student. She assumed graduate school and academic research was “for geniuses,” she said. “But what I found is that this is something I’m capable of. This is something I could do.”

Run jointly by leaders at Intel Corporation and Princeton University's School of Engineering and Applied Science, the research experience for undergraduates (REU) program aims to diversify the field of technology and engineering and strengthen the Ph.D. pipeline to produce a greater diversity of talent for years to come.

“We want to provide the experience of what research is like, what computer security and cyber security are, so that [the students] can have more choice and more understanding,” said Bo-Yuan Huang, Intel Program Manager and a 2021 Princeton graduate alum. “Hopefully, they will choose this path and understand it better, and then we can get more talent in this direction.”

Sharad Malik, the George Van Ness Lothrop Professor in Engineering, said that students of underrepresented groups are not likely to have that exposure to research experiences, and thus don’t necessarily see research and graduate education as viable options. Malik founded the program in 2021 with Jason Fung, director of offensive security research and academic research engagement at Intel, and Julie Yun, associate dean of diversity and inclusion at Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

According to an Inside HigherEd report, for example, current tenure-track professors are 25 times more likely to have a parent with a Ph.D.

As a result, Malik said, many talented young people either don't make it to Ph.D. programs or make it in disproportionately small numbers.

 “We are missing out on that talent,” he said. “The greater the diversity we have in our programs, the greater the range of talent we'll have.”

Malik said that exposing students earlier is the best way to drive interest. For that reason, the program targets students in the summer between their sophomore and junior years.

“Most REU programs are targeted at rising seniors, but we felt that that was a little too late,” he said. “What we really wanted to do was get students who were not even actively thinking about a Ph.D. program and give them an experience that would make them interested.”

The approach seems to be working.

Zhu said she thought the timing was perfect. “Even though we didn’t have as much experience going in as a traditional REU student, I think it’s actually really important to get this kind of experience earlier so that you have time to understand what you’re doing before it’s too late,” she said.

Ramakrishnan is back in the classroom this fall, having just started his junior year at Rutgers, and is energized by the research he completed this summer as well as research that may lie ahead.

“Graduate school is definitely on my radar,” he said. “I want to do more research, in either an academic setting or in a corporate setting, where I can have some influence as to what is being explored and what problems need to be solved. I also think I’d eventually like to teach, either at the high school or university level.”