CAMDEN — Brad Greening admits that he never envisioned himself as a doctoral student, even while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Rutgers–Camden. But after a challenging research experience and a push in the right direction from a faculty mentor, Greening became convinced to change his career trajectory.
“I had no desire to pursue an advanced degree at all,” says Greening, a Pennsauken native who is now pursuing his doctoral degree in ecology at Rutgers–New Brunswick. “Even if I had, I certainly had no idea of what one needed to do to prepare for graduate school, or what options or opportunities were available to someone who wished to do so.”
Greening is one of several students who are enjoying post-baccalaureate success after graduating from Rutgers–Camden’s computer science program. He credits Rajiv Gandhi, an associate professor of computer science at Rutgers–Camden, with helping him to see how much he enjoyed doing research while performing up to his potential.
“All we have to do is raise our standards and support our students and good things will happen,” says Gandhi, who earlier this semester delivered a talk about student success titled “From Potential to Promise: Developing Scholars One Eureka Moment at a Time.”
“Many times, students who lack confidence don’t believe they can take on something like a research project,” Gandhi says. “I think it’s our job as educators to believe in them, present them with opportunities, and challenge them.”
Greening, who graduated from Rutgers–Camden in 2009, says Gandhi convinced him to apply for a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program while he was still at Rutgers–Camden. Through the program, he worked under Nina Fefferman, an associate professor of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at Rutgers–New Brunswick and Greening’s doctoral advisor, on using computational and mathematical techniques to answer biological problems.
Greening says he found that he loved answering real-world questions using math and computational skills. In addition to this work, Greening did research with Gandhi on approximation algorithms, was awarded a Dean’s Undergraduate Research Grant at Rutgers–Camden, presented his work at the annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, and co-authored two research publications.
Greening says these opportunities “allowed me to see that I enjoyed research and was capable of performing the tasks necessary to be a researcher in graduate school.”
With more students becoming interested in research and graduate school opportunities, Gandhi received National Science Foundation funding to allow for his students to take on more research projects.
“Working on problems that take months to solve is what attracted me to an advanced degree,” says James Davis, a 2010 Rutgers–Camden graduate now pursuing his doctoral degree at Cornell University.
Davis, who wants to work for a data analytics company, published a research paper at Rutgers–Camden about maximizing the efficiency — and reducing the time — of jobs done on one machine. He says the work “prepared me quite well to navigate the Ph.D. landscape.”
At Virginia Tech, Tom DeHart is working toward his master’s degree in computer science. Like Greening, DeHart is a 2009 Rutgers–Camden graduate who never gave much thought to graduate school. He explains that working with Gandhi and putting in extra time with him beyond normal coursework boosted his confidence.
While at Rutgers–Camden, DeHart participated in an REU program at Virginia Tech and worked closely with graduate students on research projects. He says the experience “changed the way I thought about my future career” and he is now working toward a career in human-computer interaction.
“This area of computer science was entirely unknown to me before that summer, but is now my favorite subject of computer science,” DeHart says. “After those three months, I had already decided that I wanted to get my master’s or Ph.D.”
Gandhi, a recipient of a 2010 Fulbright Fellowship that allowed him to teach computer science in India, says research at the undergraduate level at Rutgers–Camden opens doors for new opportunities.
“If students have the opportunity to do research, they should take advantage of it,” he says. “I did not have that opportunity as a student. “It’s a chance to stand out and gain confidence by accepting new challenges, and it’s important for current undergraduate students to see how doing research has paid off for Rutgers–Camden students seeking advanced degrees.”