The study of alternative energy offers a world of opportunity to the first class of students in Penn's interdisciplinary VIPER program. The inaugural class of the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER) is comprised of nine talented, prepared, and motivated students who are interested in energy, science, and engineering. They come to Penn from seven States and Mexico City, Mexico, and share an eagerness to apply science to energy research - with an added flavor of environmental awareness.
While still very new, Penn's VIPER program has had no trouble attracting applicant interest, said Jane Dmochowski, Managing Director of the program. Dr. Dmochowski shares Faculty Director responsibility for VIPER with Dr. Andrew M. Rappe and Dr. John M. Vohs. She explained that high school students may have done a research project and advanced courses in the sciences where they become aware of the applications of fields like Chemistry and Physics to solving problems related to energy and the environment, and they wish to continue this interdisciplinary work in college. "These students who were accepted into the VIPER program at Penn, likely all got into great schools, but they decided to come here, at least in part, because VIPER is a dual degree program (a BA and a BSE) that focuses on the research component of their work early on," she said.
In their freshman year, these nine students have been exposed to a broad education in energy, science, and technology in a very contemporary way, by reading current journals and books and taking part in mini-seminar talks with Penn faculty in their VIPER seminar (VIPR120), in addition to course work across the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Encouraged to think of themselves as researchers from the start, they are now selecting mentors and will submit a research proposal for the summer. In VIPR120 they dive into the literature and practice identifying areas of "expertise" - from conductive polymers to ionic liquids to nanocrystalline metals - and then forging collaborations with others to work on proposals together. Combining these in-class experiences with their summer research internships, the students' research interests will develop over the course of the program.
Dr. Dmochowski pointed out that this ability to tailor the program to their individual interest is another appealing element of VIPER. "These students can do problem solving toward something they care about," she said. By the end of four years, she explained, VIPER students' research will be submitted for publication, and should be on par with that of graduate-level researchers.
Read about the origin of the VIPER program in the December 2011 issue  of this newsletter.