Leader of undergraduate research

University of North Georgia (UNG) student Mark Leggiero’s original career path seemed simple. The junior pursuing dual degrees in physics and engineering envisioned working at an engineering firm after his graduation until one research opportunity changed his trajectory.

During the summer 2019 semester, Leggiero earned a Department of Energy (DOE) Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Leggiero received hands-on engineering research experience in the National Synchrotron Light Source – II facility, which can be used as a high-resolution X-ray microscope.

“My job was to create a robotic system that exchanges samples inside the microscope to increase efficiency in imaging,” said the 20-year-old from Buford, Georgia.

Leggiero worked with undergraduate and graduate students as well as experts. One made quite an impression.

“Through connections at Brookhaven, I met someone who got their Ph.D. working on a cookstove,” he said, explaining it is a low smoke-emitting stove for developing countries. “That’s when I realized I could get a doctoral degree while I conduct hands-on engineering work in the global development field.”

Now, Leggiero is considering graduate school to focus on developmental engineering, a small, but growing branch of engineering.

“Its focus is on projects that will help developing countries; water purification is a common example,” he said, adding he would not have considered the field without his Brookhaven research experience. “It gave me my first look into professional research.”

Leggiero credits his two undergraduate research projects at UNG along with encouragement from faculty for his ability to score the SULI at Brookhaven. In fact, he would not have considered undergraduate research projects unless he had been approached by a faculty member during his first semester on UNG’s Dahlonega Campus.

“When I had my first advising session, Dr. Sarah Formica saw that I had experience with 3D printing and asked if I would join her project,” Leggiero said. “From there, the undergraduate research projects snowballed.”

He assisted Formica, professor of physics, with her project on “Using 3D Printing to Optimize Research in X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy.” His second project, with Dr. JB Sharma, former assistant head of the physics and astronomy department and professor emeritus, focuses on the “Development of 3D Thermal Models to Analyze Building Power Loss.” He presented his findings at the Georgia Undergraduate Research Conference in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

“I’ve learned a lot from both those experiences,” Leggiero said. “I also learned a lot about coding, which is essential for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.”

The Oviedo, Florida, native will continue to work on both undergraduate research projects until he transfers in fall 2020 to complete his dual degree program at Georgia Institute of Technology. The dual degree program allows students to complete a specified 90-credit-hour curriculum of foundational and upper-division courses in mathematics in addition to core courses at UNG and then transfer to an engineering college. Once the engineering degree is completed, students receive a second bachelor’s degree from UNG. Engineering schools involved in the dual degree program are Georgia Tech, Kennesaw State University, Georgia Southern University, University of Georgia, Clemson University and Mercer University.

Leggiero started his UNG career as a sophomore after he earned 33 credits through dual enrollment.

“I will find new student researchers to fill my role in those projects,” he said. “And because of those projects, I am on track for graduate school.”