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Chu Ma talking with one of her undergraduate researchers, Leena Abdullah Fayyad

Chu Ma has built a lab where undergraduate researchers can thrive

Written By: Jason Daley

Chu Ma, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a big advocate for getting undergraduates involved in research projects. That’s why half of the eight students in her lab at Engineering Hall are undergraduates and key contributors to her research in acoustic sensing and functional materials.

While undergraduate engineering students get a full, state-of-the-art education at UW-Madison without signing up for shifts in a laboratory, the opportunity to participate in undergrad research is a big advantage for those hoping to pursue graduate education or a career in research and development.

Chu Ma with the graduate and undergraduate members of her lab
Chu Ma with the graduate and undergraduate members of her lab from left to right: Siddharth Subramani; Chu Ma; Leena Abdullah Fayyad; Jinuan Lin; Yizhou Wu; Dajun Zhang; Michael (Yaxuan) Wang; Xiaohong Zhang.

“Undergraduate students have a role in every project in my lab, and I really appreciate their help,” says Ma. “I hope the experience can help them learn more about how research works and how we approach a problem.”

Ma knows firsthand the power of undergraduate research. She started working in research labs during her second year of undergraduate study; each year after, she joined a different research lab and contributed to many different projects. In one of those labs, she began working on electromagnetics and antennas. “That work on waves, signal processing and communication was indeed the foundation for my current research on acoustics.” says Ma.

Ma puts a lot of faith in the great work undergraduates can do. “A team of four undergraduate students helped me build an experimental system in my lab that we still use every day,” she says. “Our ECE undergraduates are amazing and they have all of these interesting backgrounds. Some were good in coding and helped me program devices, some had hardware expertise and used laser cutting to fabricate devices.”

Those first four undergraduates have all moved on to graduate school but Ma has continued to employ undergrads in her research. She says she primarily recruits undergraduate researchers from a course she teaches, ECE 401: Electro-Acoustical Engineering. “I intentionally make the course related to my research projects. After taking the class, the students have learned about acoustics and imaging,” she says. “So they feel more familiar in my lab.”

Ma says that her research has many different facets, meaning that undergraduates can begin work on easier projects and progress to more and more difficult research problems, working side by side with and being mentored by graduate students and herself.

Xiaohong Zhang began working as an undergraduate in Ma’s lab in the fall semester of 2021. Currently he is helping on a project developing non-line-of-sight acoustic imaging, a sensing technology that can see around corners.

The experience so far has been very positive, and he says it will definitely help him when he applies to PhD programs. But beyond the resume boost, he says the research has really filled out his education. “I think there are a lot of things you cannot learn from the normal classroom. By doing a research project, you’re going to learn a lot of detailed things you probably wouldn’t be exposed to,” he says.

Zhang says that at the beginning of his work in the lab, the graduate students and Ma took extra time to familiarize him with the equipment and show him how to do things like run computer simulations or understand theory. The result? He feels like a true, contributing member of the lab and also developed friendships with both graduate and undergraduate students. Even more, the experience has confirmed his desire to stay in academia, and he now plans to pursue similar research in graduate school. “I’ve found that I really love doing research,” he says. “It gives me a lot of sense of achievement, actually.”