CRA-E’s “Undergraduate Research Highlights” series showcases outstanding research done by undergraduate students at universities and colleges across North America. It is one of a number of CRA-E’s activities that foster and recognize talented computing researchers with the goal of increasing the research pipeline, promoting graduate education, and advocating research-based careers.
Each article features the story of a successful undergraduate researcher and offers personal insights into their experiences with finding an advisor, undertaking new research projects, and discovering how research can impact their personal and professional futures. In addition to helping students understand the process of getting involved in research, the articles also serve as a venue for students to pass along advice to others who aspire to become involved in research themselves. Students selected for the research highlights include those receiving recognition in the CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award competition.
Being a Hispanic woman in a STEM field presents different obstacles for many young women. At times, this means inability to find belonging, purpose, or passion in a discipline. In particular, this rings true within the bouts of undergraduate research. Sheila has broken down those barriers by diving in head first into an array of research activities. Sheila leveraged a positive meeting with two graduate students who were excited about their research in physics, which resulted in her exploration of research opportunities in computer science. Oftentimes, positive role models or helpful examples can trigger one’s shift into new pursuits.
Many graduate students do not have extensive undergraduate research experience and undergraduate students may find it difficult to identify research opportunities. Yet Eric found a welcoming community of researchers at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering. He recalls: “We [Faculty] worked together to select future research topics that I wanted to explore, including embodiment design in interactive robots, adaptive models for attention acquisition, and embodied gestures.” These opportunities are not very common among undergraduates at other schools and institutions, but Eric has taken advantage and began to develop his research profile.
As a first-generation, Latino college student, Andy Rosales-Elias defies the standard image of a computer science researcher. At a two-week science and math program preceding his first year at UC Santa Barbara, Andy recalls: “I remember one night hearing a cohort member talking on the phone to his parent, who was a professor at another university, about his research problem, and I couldn’t help but think that I was somehow inferior and had a huge disadvantage in terms of pre-existing knowledge and resources.”
As a high school student, Jalex attended the Canada/USA Mathcamp, a program where mathematicians teach five weeks of math classes to high school students. After the Mathcamp, Jalex was convinced to pursue research in mathematical logic, taking graduate courses in model theory and set theory upon arrival as a first-year student at Caltech.
Xuan Huang graduated from Bryn Mawr College with an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, and is currently a PhD student at the University of Utah studying Computer Graphics. A summer research internship influenced her decision to attend graduate school.
Being a curious high school student, Siddharth was part of the Robotics Team at Gunn High School, which compelled him to study Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at UC Berkeley. However, after getting introduced to Natural Language Processing, and being an avid reader, Sidd realized that he wanted to pursue both his interests – Computer Science and Literature together, and transferred to Brown University soon after his freshman year. Sidd is currently a senior at Brown, dual-concentrating in both Computer Science and the Literary Arts.
Computing has been a part of Kalina Petrova’s life since she first took part in a 5th grade extra-curricular programming class. Fascinated by the process of solving computational problems, Kalina had immersed herself in research by the time she reached high school, presenting research projects at national conferences around her home country of Bulgaria. She also participated in the Research Science Institute, a 6-week research program for high school students at MIT, working on a computational neuroscience project.
In academia, research often leads individuals to conferences. For Nathaniel Yazdani, it was a conference that lead him to research. In the summer before transferring to the University of Washington from a local community college, Nathaniel had just learned his first functional programming language. Curious as to why someone would design “such a strange language,” he began investigating the world of programming languages online. Interested to learn more, he applied and was awarded funding from the ACM Programming Languages Mentoring Workshop to attend the International Conference on Functional Programming that summer. In what he described as a welcoming community, Nathaniel used the opportunity to learn more about programming language research, continually engaging with other attendees and student volunteers. Becoming eager to give research a try for himself, reached out again to the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Ras Bodik, who happened to be also be moving to the University of Washington that fall. They connected after his talk, and by the start of classes, Dr. Bodik had agreed to become Nathaniel’s research advisor.
The field of medicine prides itself on being evidence-based, but where does that evidence come from? With aspirations for a career in medicine, this was one of the questions that fascinated Vinyas Harish, which would eventually lead him on a path from the engineering lab to the operating room. Although Vinyas’s research career began as an undergraduate at Queen’s University, his interest in understanding how science and engineering could be applied to medicine began much earlier. As a high school student, Vinyas attended a research open house where he met Dr. Gabor Fichtinger, whose students were demonstrating an open-source system for ultrasound-guided lumbar puncture. He recalls that after seeing what the realm of transitional clinical engineering was like, he knew he had to get involved. Upon enrolling as an undergraduate at Queen’s, Vinyas joined Dr. Fichtinger in the Laboratory for Percutaneous Surgery (PERK), where he would work during the summers after his first three years and the academic terms over his junior and senior year.
Planning for the summer after his sophomore year, Louis Jenkins had focused his efforts on securing an industry internship. However, in what he describes as “sheer coincidence,” Louis was forwarded a departmental email that would alter not only his summer plans, but his overall career trajectory. The email highlighted the NSF summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, and with recommendations from both a professor and the Computer Science Department Chair, Louis was selected as one of 14 students from the PASSHE region (Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education). Louis chose the REU at Lehigh University under Dr. Michael Spear because of their shared interest in parallel computing, but he recalls that it was Dr. Spear’s mention that the problem they were trying to solve “might not even be possible” that sparked his interest and passion.
Originally a pre-med student at Loyola University, Laurynas Kalesinskas had envisioned his undergraduate degree as a stepping-stone to attend medical school. An interest in research and a passion to create change in healthcare led him to computational research. Fascinated by the projects he worked on, Laurynas shifted his focus. Graduating with a Bioinformatics and Biology double major and minors in Computer Science and Biostatistics, he decided to apply to Ph.D. programs, and he is currently a first year Ph.D. student in Biomedical Informatics at Stanford University.
Yisu Remy Wang was sophomore at Tufts University when he enrolled in Professor Kathleen Fisher’s programming languages course. In that course, Professor Fisher exposed students to some areas of current research which sparked Yisu’s interest and curiosity. Yisu spoke with Professor Fisher and she agreed to act as his research advisor. This was the beginning of a mentoring relationship that shaped much of the rest of Yisu’s time at Tufts and has had a lasting positive impact.
Christopher Mackie had an unusual entry into computer science. As high school student in Vancouver, Washington, he participated in the Running Start Program, which allowed him to obtain a 2-year associate degree in computer science at a local college while finishing his last two years of high school. He then enrolled in the BS/MS program in computer science at the University of Washington (UW). Although Christopher came to college with a substantial amount of computing background, he was mindful that he had not yet had the opportunity to work on a long-term open-ended problem.
June Chen’s passion for learning was abundantly evident when she arrived as an undergraduate at Rice University. She pursued a triple major in electrical engineering (BSEE), mathematics (BA), and medieval and early modern studies (BA), and she sought additional opportunities to learn outside of her coursework.
Alex Ozdemir is intensely curious about understanding how things work. Perhaps this curiosity is what drove him to pursue a self-designed major in “Computational, Mathematical, and Physical Theory” at Harvey Mudd College. After completing two summer internships in industry, Alex decided to try research. He began seeking research opportunities around campus. He remembered enjoying the algorithms that he’d studied in an introductory Computational Biology class, so he reached out to the professor, Dr. Ran Libeskind-Hadas, who happily agreed to supervise Alex on a research project.
Growing up in Silicon Valley, Lillian Tsai had always assumed that a normal career path for a computer scientist involved working at a company or, perhaps, launching a start-up. That was the path that she imagined for herself when she enrolled at Harvard University and chose to major in computer science.
While Gloria Kim’s interest in computing started in the classroom, her curiosity in deeper questions and desire to learn quickly took her outside of any curriculum. While taking an Introduction to Parallel Programming course with Prof. Vivek Sarkar at Rice University, Gloria found the topics led her to questions that fell outside the scope of the class. Rather than leave those questions unanswered, Gloria decided to take the initiative, asking Prof. Sarkar to join his lab as an undergraduate researcher in the summer following her sophomore year. In her research outside of the classroom, Gloria says she found even more enjoyment in learning for learning’s sake. “The entire process is driven by curiosity – question after question, as opposed to the contents of a syllabus.”
When Julia Woodward began her first year at the University of Florida, she did not know that her interests in design, art, and computing would ultimately merge to form an exciting path in computing research. During an introductory meeting for the Digital Arts and Science major, several professors gave presentations on their work and research interests. Julia was particularly intrigued by the work of Dr. Lisa Anthony, whose research focuses on child-computer interaction. Julia reached out to Professor Anthony who agreed to advise her in research.