Undergraduate Research Symposium Highlights Research
Undergraduate research at WPI is meaningful, purpose driven, and widespread. Undergraduates had a chance to talk about their research and why they are doing it at the first Works in Progress Undergraduate Research Symposium held November 25.
More than 90 posters and demos representing 25 of the 32 majors at WPI were presented over the two hours, packing the Rubin Campus Center Odeum with students, faculty members, staff, and visitors. Most of the undergraduate research presentations were by seniors working on their Major Qualifying Project (MQP), but a little over 20 percent of the presentations were made by sophomore or junior researchers. There was even one presentation by a high school student from the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science.
Suzanne Weekes, associate dean of undergraduate studies, spearheaded the event through the Office of Undergraduate Research. “We brought all this great disciplinary work out of the departments and programs and into the larger community so connections could be made and attendees and presenters could see the beautiful and impressive range of work that is being done by our young researchers,” she says. “Undergraduate research is so much a part of undergraduate studies and what we do at this university that we take it for granted, but it needs to be highlighted, celebrated, and promoted. We can’t cede our place and our leadership in the national landscape of undergraduate research.”
Weekes thinks research presentations are extremely valuable. “Having to communicate and articulate our work really makes us converge to the answers to questions, such as What problem are we really trying to solve or investigate? Why is this an important problem? What is our plan to make progress?” she says.
The Herd spoke with a few of the presenters to hear why an undergraduate research experience is important to them. The undergraduate research symposium's abstracts can be found in the 2019 Works in Progress Abstract Book (PDF).
“Our project has a search and rescue mission application,” says ECE major Sarah Elice of her MQP with Isaac Beeman (l), Griffen Spincken, and Michael MacCormac (r), all members of the Class of 2020. “This is a complex problem and now that we’ve done this, I feel capable that I could figure out solutions to complex problems in the real world.”
“We are all different majors so we work in different parts of the project,” says sophomore biology major Hannah Borges (r) of her undergraduate research in functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS); her MQP teammates are senior Yihan Sylvia Lin (not pictured) (computer science) and junior Chau Do (l) (computer science). “When we see our work go to the next person and the next step, you can see how it goes together.” Do says the level of research expectations and the sponsor collaboration with the National Science Foundation is motivating. “I like the opportunities to start working on this,” she says. “I didn’t think I would be able to do this as an undergrad.”
“It’s really cool to be able to do this type of work,” says Dominic Cascino (r), a senior ECE major. “There’s such a good vibe around creating things here.” Fellow senior ECE major and teammate Paulo Chow (l) agrees. “This project is a good opportunity to prepare in general by working on teams and using our technical skills,” he says. The pair's undergraduate research has resulted in a provisional patent on their new approach to a wireless peripheral system for virtual reality.
“In sophomore year, I lived in Faraday Hall and started using SNAP a lot,” says Dimitri Berardi (pictured, middle), a senior majoring in computer science, “and I knew I wanted to do a project to improve on it.” The project team, including Ken Morton (l) and Nick Delli Carpini (r), is developing an app for SNAP, the WPI nighttime transport van. “This gives me a real experience to develop an app and to do entrepreneurial things," says Morton. “We are making our own project.”
“I want to know how far I can take it with this,” says Kwabena Adwetewa-Badu, a senior mathematical sciences major researching matrix algebras. “This can be used in an application in the real world. You can use it for social media. It’s theory and practice.”
“Having a project in electrical chemistry forced me out of my comfort zone,” says senior chemistry major Tristan Arnold (l) of his liquid gallium air battery research. Project partner Ari Athair (r), a senior mechanical engineering major, says WPI offers the kind of undergraduate research opportunities that aren’t easy to find. “I transferred here," he says, "and part of the reason was that I wanted to be able to do research at a higher level as an undergraduate.”
“We were given lots of data and we had to figure out how to interpret it,” says Jake Barefoot (pictured, middle), a senior ECE major and data science minor, who is working with MQP team members Akash Shaji (l), Minh Pham (not pictured), and Yanniode Peri-okonny (r). They are partnering with external sponsor and fantasy sports company DraftKings to see if they can improve score predictions. “This is definitely difficult," says Shaji, "because you are not told what to do, you have to find your own goals.”
“I have a very ambitious MQP,” says Katherine Gomes, a dual major in chemical engineering and professional writing (shown here with John McNeill, dean of engineering), about her work to create, translate into Portuguese, and localize the dialect of a laboratory safety manual for a research lab at the University of Campinas in Brazil. “It has been very big for me in learning project management skills.”
“Working alone has been challenging because it’s always nice to bounce ideas off someone else," says biology and biotechnology major Amanda Maffeo about her research into designing a biosensor for synthetic opioids in collaboration with UMass Lowell. "But being able to work with Professor [Natalie] Farny one-on-one is one of the biggest motivators for me to be able to do this on my own. It’s more of a collaboration with my professor.”
Mathematical sciences seniors Leah Mitchell (r) and Matt Boros (l) are excited by their work with teammate Elijah Ellis (not pictured) using advanced baseball analytics to create team predictions. Collaborators since sophomore year, they enjoy using math with this creative application. “This is unique to WPI--to work on this kind of project in the real world,” says Mitchell. Boros says using undergraduate research to show math’s applications to sports is "just enjoyable. We have a ton of data—13 million rows, so there’s a lot to work with,” he says. “And it’s fun—I can talk to people about baseball and show them that math is fun.”
“I work with AI in music for my company, Augment, but I wanted to do something with computer science and philosophy,” says sophomore computer science major Michael Osei of his independent study project examining black technologists’ response to algorithmic bias. “I also have a full course load. Before this I never did an extensive research project like this or a poster. This has really helped me learn how to communicate complicated work.”
Two teams of robotics engineering students joined forces to create a modular self-driving and self-righting rover. Alexander Boggess, Julia Davenport, Michael DeFrancesco, Thomas Kim, Anthony Marge, Richard Mohabir, Zack Orbach, Michael Pierce, and Joshua Rondon are working on various aspects of a robotic rover. With many iterations of the assembled scale of a Mars rover—including suspension, 3D-printed parts, and self-righting ability—the teams completed an important goal: to get the car up and over the ramp before Thanksgiving break. Done. Ready for the next challenge.