Discovering the (Virtual) Realities of Undergraduate Research
This Q&A highlight features Lauren Baron, recipient of an Honorable Mention in the 2021 CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researchers award program. Lauren is currently completing her junior year at the University of Delaware in the College of Engineering and Honors College, majoring in Computer Science and minoring in Cybersecurity. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
From your Honorable Mention, we know you’ve done some excellent research as an undergraduate; could you tell us a bit about the project you were recognized for?
In the summer of 2020, I led a project focused on how virtual reality (VR) might help post-stroke patients recover their upper limb mobility. I tailored a VR game to meet the needs of remote physical therapy. I then ran a pilot study investigating the game’s enjoyability, difficulty, and effectiveness. Our findings are promising, suggesting that the game is simple and enjoyable, yet effective. I recently presented my research paper on the project at the ACM Symposium on Spatial User Interaction (SUI’21) and I am continuing this work for my senior thesis.
How did you find your first research opportunity?
In my freshman year, I received an email promoting a program called Summer Scholars, which pays for undergraduates to undertake full-time research supervised by a faculty sponsor. I asked my CS instructors if they were able to sponsor Summer Scholars projects. Most of them weren’t, but they asked around and recommended Dr. Roghayeh (Leila) Barmaki and her Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCI@UD).
What was it like getting started in the lab?
Using my resume, Dr. Barmaki matched my skills with her current projects and suggested some possibilities. Knowing I wanted to help people, I decided to take the lead on a VR in healthcare project. A previous student had started building the VR game, so I took over where he left off. With minimal experience in VR and not being physically in the lab due to COVID-19, having the blueprint of another student’s approach helped me acclimate to the project. Working with VR became one of my favorite aspects of the research; it didn’t even feel like work because I was so interested in learning how to use VR for the first time.
What was it like starting research during such a challenging part of the pandemic?
I didn’t meet my mentor face to face until my initial study was over. Doing everything remotely was intimidating, especially since it was my first time working with VR and game development. I struggled with how to ask for help without an in-person lab community. However, with time, I grew comfortable meeting virtually and reaching out to other student researchers.
The pandemic also affected my experiments. I had to conduct my study on close friends/family that I was already in contact with (following guidelines like wearing masks, wiping down equipment after each person, only having one person come to my apartment at a time, etc.). Completing every part of a study helped me appreciate the details involved in designing and carrying out human participant research.
What was it like preparing a first research paper for publication?
While the majority of my project was completed in the summer, I continued working on my research paper throughout the academic year to prepare it for submission. When revising the paper, a postdoctoral researcher from our HCI Lab, Dr. Kangsoo Kim, guided me on what needed to be fixed for the paper to be accepted at a conference. We originally submitted it to a leading conference in Human-Computer Interaction and it was rejected. Rejection made me begin to doubt my research, which was challenging to deal with. However, we did not give up and our submission to SUI’21 was successful!
What has participating in research brought to your career development?
Starting research early in my career has helped me develop multiple skills: technical writing, analyzing academic papers, presenting my work, designing a study, developing VR games, and realizing how developments in CS can impact fields like healthcare.
Do you have any advice for other undergraduate students looking to get into research?
Don’t be afraid to ask—faculty are there to help and support you! I did research with a professor that I had never met or talked to prior, and now I can count on her mentorship and dedicated support. I reached out my freshman year so don’t be nervous if you don’t have enough experience! The biggest step is getting started.
— Edited by Nadia Ady