Beyond the Classroom: Graduate student reflects on his work as a student researcher

Alex Snyder works on his graduate research in the NIU College of Engineering 

Between his responsibilities as a teaching assistant, his schoolwork and a social life, mechanical engineering graduate student Alex Snyder has made time for something equally important: research.

Research plays a key role not only in education, but also in industry. NIU offers students a multitude of opportunities for students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to engage in research alongside talented faculty. With a bachelor’s degree in materials science, it was natural for Snyder to conduct his research under Assistant Professor Iman Salehinia, who is overseeing his computational investigation of nanoscale deformation mechanism in hydroxyapatite.

As a materials scientist, Snyder came into the graduate program with plenty of hands-on lab work and internship experience under his belt, but computational materials science was a new adventure for him.

“Honestly, I’d say the best reason to get involved in research is that the right adviser can help students develop higher level thinking skills,” he said. “Someone who has higher level thinking skills typically takes the time to properly research a problem from every angle and see if others have solved something similar. This can help save a lot of time and money, in addition to helping someone stand out above his or her peers.”

Snyder said his favorite aspect of research is the independence it affords students. A student works with his or her adviser to find the best way to solve a problem, and then it is up to the student to see it through.

“The job of an adviser is not to do a student’s work, but to constantly examine if that student is performing adequately and getting the best results possible,” Snyder said. “That leaves the student with a large amount of work to do, which can really help him or her develop into a better engineer/scientist.”

Snyder finds the most difficult part of graduate research is also the most rewarding.

“I enjoy the knowledge that I am solving a problem which has not been solved yet,” he said. “My least favorite aspect is that proper research takes time and requires immense patience; I don’t think a single person has ever called me patient. But I know that I’m learning every day and getting better at what I do.”

Snyder said the actual day-to-day responsibilities of a student researcher evolve as the research progresses. In the earliest stages, his daily tasks included reviewing literature, progressing through the project design and benchmarking relevant goals. Later, students may be responsible for regularly collecting data and revising experimental design to optimize results. Now, as he prepares to defend his thesis, his time is mostly consumed with data analysis, drafting publication submissions and preparing sections of his thesis.

In July, Snyder will begin work as a rotational engineer for John Deere as he considers opportunities to pursue his doctoral degree. He said getting more students aware of and participating in the many research opportunities at NIU would be a boost to both the student body and to the university as a whole.

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