As an undergraduate in chemistry and polymer science at Carnegie Mellon University, Stefanie Sydlik conducted research on the fourth floor of the Mellon Institute. Now, as an assistant professor of chemistry, she is in the same labs guiding undergraduates herself.
The Sydlik Group is a polymer and material research team in the Department of Chemistry that specializes in the design and synthesis of novel polymers and organic materials for use in electronic, mechanical and biological applications.
"We solve biomedical problems using chemical tools, and we create new materials or new solutions to problems with those solutions," Sydlik said. "The research culture is very interdisciplinary and collaborative. We think outside of the box."
For example, the group, which draws students from chemistry and engineering, has developed a chemical procedure to transform graphite into a biodegradable scaffold that attracts adult stem cells and encourages bones to heal themselves. Another looks at ways to close wounds without sutures through a controlled release of drugs.
"I need an army to carry out my ideas so the more people the better," Sydlik said. "I find undergraduate researchers and undergraduate research to be a special experience. They know the fundamentals but they aren’t yet jaded, and they bring a youthful enthusiasm. Graduate students tend to be more careful and reserved. Undergraduates will try anything and they believe that it’s possible."
While undergraduates have academic advisers, Sydlik said getting involved in research provides them with senior scientist mentors who can have a vested interest in their career. Sydlik’s mentor, Richard McCullough, was former vice president of research, and they stay in touch.
"He had his star team in the lab when I was an undergraduate," Sydlik said. "Many of the members were women and we’re all professors now. It provides that network for you."
Working in a lab is about teamwork.
"I prefer to call us Team Sydlik. Students who come in learn how to be good team players. It’s a really important skill to learn to work in a group and learn how to ask for help from your co-workers, and if you see someone struggling knowing when to offer advice," Sydlik said. "They’re always welcome to come to me, but I encourage them to work with each other."
Since Sydlik joined CMU’s faculty in 2015, Team Sydlik has published more than a dozen papers and has had their research featured on the cover of the journal Polymer International. Undergraduates are active in the writing process and have been first authors on papers.
"We should always be looking for opportunities to get undergraduates involved," she said.