Friday, August 5, 2016

Summer Research Symposium Showcases Student Works

Internet of Things (IoT) Fellows Present Homegrown Projects

UVI undergraduates Natisha Hode, Joseph Chalres, and Jordan Atemazem, and Dr. Michael Smith from Intel
            Anyone who has ever doubted UVI’s claim that it “specializes in futures” would have been well advised to attend one of the largest summer undergraduate research symposia in the University’s history, which took place on July 29, in the Sports and Fitness Center on the St. Thomas Campus. 
“Normally we have about twenty to twenty-five undergraduate research fellows,” said Grants Manager Aimee Sanchez.  “But this year as a result of extra funding from multiple sources including NASA, the cybersecurity initiative, VI-EPSCoR, Title III and others, more than forty research opportunities have been made available to UVI students.”
The second floor west mezzanine of the Sports and Fitness Center was abuzz with excitement as students presented work they had done through a variety of summer programs under the Emerging Caribbean Scientist (ECS) umbrella. These rigorous programs provide UVI students with challenging summer employment opportunities that encourage intellectual expansion while they invite comprehensive explorations of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).  “The students learn research techniques and methods they will be able to apply to upper level courses," said Sanchez.  “They also get a taste of what it might be like to attend graduate school.”

UVI Internet of Things program participants with Dr. Michael Smith (far right)
This year, five summer programs were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) grant; the Virgin Islands Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VI-EPSCoR); the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program; and the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
Nick Drayton, Joseph Charles, and Jordan Atemazem
present their bird counting research
The newest VI-EPSCoR offering was a pilot program called The Internet of Things (IoT), which like traditional research programs allowed students to work closely with a faculty mentor.  But unlike traditional professors, IoT expert Dr. Michael A. Smith works for Intel Corporation where he runs the company’s IoT academic programs.  During his three and a half week program, Dr. Smith provided training and guidance on how to apply Internet and Maker Space technologies to marine and environmental science challenges.  Focusing on micro-computing and connectivity, he divided the course into progressive segments that started with conventional instruction, segued into project development, and concluded with final implementation. 
“It was intense,” said Dr. Smith, who acknowledged the rigor of a program that introduced students to a whole new approach to learning and productivity within a limited time frame. “It was modelled like a condensed Master’s program.  The students started with nothing, not even an idea, and ended up with a good start on a project of their own creation.  The IoT program is also very hands-on and collaborative.”
Bird counting meeting with Daniel Nellis DPNR
The IoT fellows were divided into three groups mentored by UVI STEM faculty in addition to Dr. Smith.  One group used a wearable medical device to determine how music affects the quality of your sleep; one developed the architecture for a cell phone app that would record frog calls in order to track frog populations in a particular area; and one used image segmentation and edge features to enhance the accuracy of bird counting.  All three projects were designed to boost the efficiency of scientific research in the Virgin Islands while challenging their creators to solve problems and develop fresh skills in the service of a common and practical goal.

Khadijah O’Neill was the only member of her VI Frog Count group that had not yet declared a major, but she said that her summer experience as an IoT fellow had definitely encouraged her to pursue a STEM field.  “This program was tough,” said O’Neill.  “We spent the first two weeks learning the process.  But it was rewarding to start a project from the ground up that could potentially be used to solve real world problems. It’s very important to keep the frog population of the Virgin Islands up for a variety of reasons, one of which is to control the mosquito population, since mosquitos carry diseases.”
STEM Undergraduate Research Programs
Three of the more conventional ECS summer programs – the Summer Sophomore Research Institute (SSRI), the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), and the VI-EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Program – allow current UVI students to work closely with a faculty mentor on research initiated by that mentor. 
Kiana Rawlins presents fluorescence spectroscopy
research mentored by Dr. Stan Latesky
One such student was Josh Howsmon from the VI-EPSCoR  group who presented his research on the effect of seasonal occurrence on larval fish in Brewers Bay with great enthusiasm.  Thanks to his faculty mentor, Dr. Sennai Habtes, Howsmon and his research partner, Travis Hamlin, learned how to use Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) to collect samples from thirty-three sites across the bay. 
“It was amazing to see how you can track the whole bay and collect samples of hundreds of thousands of marine organisms,” said Howsmon. “If global warming heats the water, the digital catalogue we’re in the process of creating will help us to understand what is happening.”
Narome Belus, a rising sophomore who is majoring in chemistry, spent her summer studying the effects of drying on antioxidants.  After computing antioxidant levels in a variety of fresh leaves and their dried counterparts, Belus was happy to have achieved tangible results: three of the five plants she worked on (papaya, lemongrass and French thyme) contained higher levels of antioxidants after they had been dried than when they were still fresh.  But what excited Belus even more was learning how to use a monitoring device called the UV-VIS spectrophotometer. 
Star Matthew presenting her coral disease
modeling research mentored by Dr. Robert Stolz
“It was difficult at first, but after I got the hang of it I realized what a great skill it was to have,” said Belus. “This device allows you to transfer data to excel and make all sorts of amazing graphs and charts.  I just love this skill and can’t wait to use it on other research.”
Many other math and science majors presented work at the symposium, much of which focused on marine biology.  But there was also one nursing project, two or three education projects, and a cybersecurity project that was undertaken by two computer science students, Kelvin Dover and Leroy Matthais.  This project focused jamming attacks and was unique in that it started off-island but finished at UVI.  The wireless security project also received additional support through a grant from the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration.
Math Behind the Science
The only ECS program that presented their work on the evening before the summer research symposium was Math Behind the Science (MBS), a residential readiness program for incoming and current students. This summer bridge program enhanced the mathematics readiness of college-bound STEM students, preparing them to enter the introductory calculus course while providing an enriching transition to college life.
Math Behind the Science students
Hairol Breton and Jendahye Antoine
“MBS was kind of like a math boot camp,” said Jendahye Antoine, a recent graduate of Charlotte Amalie High School who entered the program in search of a smooth transition from high school to college, where she plans to study marine biology.  “We had classes seven hours a day, for six weeks, and we lived on campus.  It was a great preparation.  In the end, I tested into calculus, which was the main goal.”
In addition to studying math, MBS students are required to take classes in computer science and writing skills, along with a freshman development seminar.  But the greatest benefit for MBS students has to do with an approach to mathematics that encourages students to make connections between what they are learning and practical applications in the real world.  “When you focus on teaching concepts, and encouraging students to ask why, the learning goes a lot faster,” said Brandon Rhymer, a UVI alumnus who taught the MBS math classes and was also a resident advisor.   “I just love seeing the light come on behind their eyes.”
Just as the flamboyant trees shower the Virgin Islands with bursts of color every summer, UVI’s STEM fellows anoint the territory with a spray of promise.  When asked why he was interested in bringing his IoT program to the Caribbean, Michael Smith replied without hesitation: “I see a lot of untapped potential here.  There’s no Intel Corporation or Silicon Valley in this part of the world, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be.  The students here are capable of reinventing themselves and the world in which they live.”