In 2014, the Kentucky NSF EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program was awarded a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to fund their project:“Powering the Kentucky Bioeconomy for a Sustainable Future.”

One of the critical missions of this project is to increase graduation rates for underrepresented minorities in STEM-based science disciplines through mentoring and collaboration. To that end, the Kentucky NSF EPSCoR program has established the Research Scholars Program (RSP), which provides funding opportunities for faculty-mentored research projects for underrepresented undergrad students in STEM fields.

The benefit of this approach is two-fold. The RSP supports on-going faculty research, while simultaneously providing engaging, hands-on learning experiences for undergraduate students across the state. Courtney McKelphin, a chemical engineering undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, is one of the many students across Kentucky supported by RSP funding.

“I know that my engineering understanding and conceptual background of reactors is a lot stronger now.”

Working closely with Dr. Eduardo Santillan-Jimenez, a Principal Research Scientist at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER), Courtney had the opportunity to assemble a continuous bioreactor this summer. “Just to see the parts and the pieces— to have put it together and commission it and deal with all the problems of trying to get it to work and software issues, it was an amazing experience,” McKelphin said. “I know that my engineering understanding and conceptual background of reactors is a lot stronger now.”

McKelphin will continue her research alongside Dr. Santillan-Jimenez this fall at CAER. “She is already turning out to be an outstanding researcher,” he said. “She’s incredibly independent and motivated. For her to bring the pieces out of the boxes and put them together and make sure they’re working properly and talking with the manufacturer—I think that experience is invaluable because it is exactly what she’ll be doing once she graduates.”

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