Janet Teng Makes the Most of Undergraduate Research Experiences

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In her first days at Pasadena City College (PCC) in fall 2020 Janet Teng told a STEM coordinator that she was interested in research. Most importantly she followed the coordinator’s recommendation that she talk with Jared Ashcroft. A natural sciences professor, Ashcroft leads PCC’s undergraduate research program and serves as principal investigator of the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC).

Janet Teng

“I just went from there,” Teng said, modestly acknowledging the numerous research projects – including two undergraduate research experiences supported by the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program – that have led to her winning national accolades.

In 2022 alone Teng was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the U.S. government’s most prestigious undergraduate scholarship for sophomores and juniors who plan to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, math, and engineering. 

In late summer 2021 she won the Ignite Off! Competition hosted by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). Federal agency interns – including university and graduate students – participate in the annual competition. Teng’s presentation “Understanding Corrosion One Atom at a Time,” summarized research she did as a summer intern at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. Her research there was included in a paper published by Cambridge University Press.

Upon her return to PCC in fall 2021 she started a yearlong, paid internship at the California Institute of Technology as MNT-EC’s first student in the Skills Training in Advanced Research & Technology (START) program. That initiative allows ATE projects to place community college students in paid internships at Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers, which receive National Science Foundation funding.

Teng recently learned she’s been selected for another prestigious internship. This summer she will be part of a research team that is modeling exoplanets at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

“I didn’t really know about research until I entered college,” said Teng, who has clearly learned a lot in less than three years.

Teng’s success as a researcher and applicant to selective programs seemed unlikely to her in May 2020 when she graduated with straight-As from Duarte High School and no university acceptance letters.   

She enrolled at PCC because it has strong STEM programs and is close to her parents’ home. Her brother had transferred from Citrus College to the University of California, Berkeley, and she hoped that PCC could put her on track to Berkeley or another UC institution.

A "Brilliant Person"

Ashcroft describes Teng as “a naturally brilliant person” and “just a really good person.”

The first time Teng talked to Ashcroft he suggested she join the team of students who were working with him on an MNT research project to analyze the results of asynchronous modules for teaching statistical analysis. The modules were designed to teach students with diverse educational backgrounds who had to do chemistry lab assignments in their kitchens because of COVID-related restrictions. Teng is one of five students listed as co-authors with Ashcroft and Yu-Chung Chang-Hou, a PCC math professor, of a paper published by Frontiers in Educational Technology.

“I did not expect that,” Teng said of the thrill of having a published article from her first semester research experience.

However, that was just a bonus. Conducting research captivated her in first semester at PCC. “It just seemed really fun,” she said.

Teng explains what she likes about research this way: “One is just learning more about the issue and the different approaches that could be taken to solve the issue, whatever we’re looking at. Because no one knows how to solve the problem, there’s not a set solution to it yet. Everyone’s new to this and trying to find a solution to this given problem. I just feel like that’s very interesting to me, to try to contribute even though I’m still an undergrad and there’s a lot more for me to learn, it’s very interesting to be a part of that process – the problem-solving process.”  

While taking Ashcroft’s chemistry course in spring 2021, Teng joined one of several teams of students who voluntarily conducted research on the potential for gold nanoparticles to treat cancer. One of those PCC teams won the 2021 Community College Innovation Challenge.

Teng says Ashcroft routinely announces research opportunities in his classes and then leaves it up to the students to pursue what interests them.

He encourages all students regardless of their grade point averages to do research and makes himself available after class to talk about research or to review resumes or applications. “He does seem busy, but he also seems to be able to offer the time to students,” Teng said.

Advice for Community College Instructors & Students 

She said it was Ashcroft who told her about the Goldwater Scholarship and urged her to apply, even connecting her to other Goldwater Scholars – including another of his PCC students.

“He is very approachable, very honest, and very supportive,” she said.

When asked if she had any advice to community college educators, Teng suggested they follow Ashcroft’s lead: “Be very encouraging to their mentees and just be very supportive.”

Her advice to community college students is, “Don’t be afraid. Go after the different opportunities that are offered.”

After making her way in various environments where community college students are in the minority, Teng said she wants community college students to know “they are as smart as the other students.” Also that most people she has encountered treat her as a peer.

During her Cal Tech internship, for example, she worked with a graduate student and a post-doc on refining a temperature-sensitive polymer for use in a 3-D printer to make thread for fabric.

Although Teng is planning to earn a doctorate she does not have an ultimate career plan yet.

Following what she enjoys in STEM is a personal discovery process that has served her well since her first semester at PCC. Now at MIT she is using her courses to explore different aspects of science. This semester fluid mechanics is her favorite course.  

“It’s very new, and for me it’s a little challenging to think in a different way for that class. So far it’s been very interesting. I don’t know where it will take me, but that class right now, I definitely enjoy it,” she said.

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