UMBC offers new Research Experiences for Undergraduates in smart computing, big data

Published: Mar 25, 2021

Starting out at UMBC, Meyerhoff Scholar Timothy Potteiger wasn’t certain what direction he wanted to take. However, he benefited from UMBC programs that brought the world to his doorstep, inviting universities to pitch him their summer research experiences. One conversation with Washington State University particularly resonated. They spoke about researching smart home sensor technologies to help improve the daily lives of older adults and people with disabilities. 

Potteiger ’14, computer engineering, was drawn to that purpose-driven approach. Little did he know that the program manager for that undergraduate research experience in 2013, Nirmalya Roy, would soon join UMBC’s faculty and expand research opportunities for even more undergraduates.

Middle-aged South Asian man smiles in a portrait. He wears black, rectangular classes, a suit jacket and burgundy sweater.
Nirmalya Roy

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) are critical for students like Potteiger. Roy, now associate professor of information systems at UMBC, is principal investigator leading a new REU in Smart Computing and Communications funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program is accepting applications through March 31 for this summer from students nationwide. 

Potteiger is excited for students to take advantage of this opportunity. “I know Dr. Roy has a good vision on how to actually impact society with research,” he shares.

Transformative experience

The program will bring together ten undergraduate students in a paid 10-week, full-time research experience from June 7 to August 13. While the summer 2021 program will be remote, each student will work closely with a research group and mentor. They will receive guidance from Roy and co-PI Dmitri Perkins, as well as other information systems and computer science and electrical engineering (CSEE) faculty. 

In the final week, the students will have a chance to present their research through UMBC’s popular Summer Undergraduate Research Fest. They will also have the opportunity to develop peer-reviewed articles and continue their research throughout the year with faculty. 

“The idea of this experience is not only to give them exposure to hands-on research problems, but to also help undergraduates with professional development,” says Roy. “Developing a peer network and encouraging them to build confidence talking with professors and researchers in their field will be important for their careers.”

Real-world applications

One REU project will tackle privacy protection in COVID-19 contact tracing programs, while another will study a chatbox method for studying cryptocurrency. Roy will also give students the chance to optimize smart home sensors for seniors or work on the FloodBot project, a collaboration with nearby Ellicott City to create an early flood warning system after a 2018 flash flood caused catastrophic damage. 

Box of electronic equipment with a solar power panel. Outdoor photo with road, plants, and homes in the background.
Sensors placed in Ellicott City through the FloodBot project. Photo courtesy of Nirmalya Roy.

Students can also work with Perkins, a CSEE professor, on research into wireless devices capable of “situational awareness,” the ability to switch from one frequency to the next along a limited radio spectrum highway. The interdisciplinary project is crucial to staving off what some experts fear is a looming, massive traffic jam for wireless devices globally.

“The hallmarks of all our projects is that they have community impact,” says Vandana Janeja, chair of information systems.

South Asian woman with shoulder-length hair smiles for a portrait, wearing a pearl necklace, black and white print shirt, and black sweater.
Vandana Janeja

Expanding opportunity

Providing undergraduates with real, hands-on research experiences resonates personally with Perkins. He grew up in a no stop-light town in Mississippi and attended Tuskegee University, which had well-regarded academic programs but more limited lab research opportunities at the time. Perkins was able to gain research experience in a broader range of areas by participating in REUs at two other universities. 

Portrait of smiling middle-aged Black man in suit, striped shirt, and pink tie.
Dmitri Perkins. Photo courtesy of Perkins.

Recognizing that many students come from similar backgrounds where research opportunities may be rare, the REU specifically encourages applicants from community colleges and groups traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields. 

“With students from traditionally underserved communities, there is often some apprehension or insecurity about pursuing a career in research,” Perkins says. “Once students complete their UMBC summer experience, they will have more information, more understanding of what research looks like, and the knowledge that they can actually do this.”

Unique online experience

Jianwu Wang, information systems, has also joined the wave of faculty from UMBC’s College of Engineering and Information Technology (COEIT) launching new REUs. Wang is assistant professor of data science and director of the Big Data Analytics Lab. With co-PI Matthias Gobbert, professor of mathematics, he’s just received NSF funding to launch an online interdisciplinary Big Data REU.

Headshot, Asian man in pink shirt and glasses
Jianwu Wang

They will provide an 8-week summer online research experience to undergraduates from across the country. Students will explore “how to utilize modern data science and high-performance computing techniques to process and analyze big data in many science and engineering disciplines,” Wang explains. This includes fields ranging from atmospheric science to mechanical engineering to medicine. 

“We’ve designed the program to be purely online so it is particularly useful for students in remote areas or who might have health concerns or concerns about travel,” says Wang. “We also want to make sure it is accessible to students with family responsibilities and disabilities, who may not be able to leave their home for an extended period of time.”

Big data research

This program will combine formal instruction, team-based research, and experience disseminating that research. The goal is to ignite students’ interest in “how data science and high-performance computing techniques could help the scientific discovery process” while giving them essential hands-on research skills and preparing them for the workforce.

Students will learn how to identify research questions and conduct research using advanced cyberinfrastructure software technologies and hardware resources. Tentative research themes for summer 2021 research projects include big data and machine learning techniques for sea ice prediction and for medical image classification. 

The summer 2021 program will run June 7 through July 31. Applications are due by April 15, 2021, and the organizers invite undergraduates in all STEM fields to apply. Students who complete the fully-funded program will also be eligible for additional funds to present their research at conferences around the country.

Roy and Wang credit COEIT for encouraging their efforts to launch new REUs. Erin Lavik, associate dean for research and faculty development and professor of chemical, biochemical, and environmental engineering, describes the new programs as “fantastic.” She shares, “This is an exciting chance to connect undergraduates from across the country with unique UMBC student research experiences and our outstanding, innovative faculty.”

White man and woman look at equipment in a lab. Both wear lab coats and protective glasses.
Graduate student Adam Day (left) works with Erin Lavik (right) in her lab, 2017.

Featured image: Nirmalya Roy with a student in 2018. All photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC unless otherwise noted.

Article written by Nick Ford for UMBC News.

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