Kirby Vacaliuc Gets an Early Start on Research

Kirby Vacaliuc explores new ideas in CS research starting from his freshman year

Kirby Vacaliuc

Oak Ridge, Tennessee native Gabe “Kirby” Vacaliuc was the only freshman to present his research in the September 2016 Computer Science Poster Competition. In his first three months at Rice, he also dove into HackRice and Rice Eclipse (Rice’s Aerospace Engineering Club), and is an avid ultimate frisbee player.

“My dad was an EE and CS major and now works in software development,” he said, “so I always knew I’d be doing stuff with CS. I basically grew up on computers, playing bad 90’s games. Then in middle school I started programming on calculators.”

The summer after his sophomore year in high school, Vacaliuc worked on data analysis of molecular dynamic trajectories created by high performance computing teams at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the US Department of Energy’s largest science and energy laboratory. He remains interested in data analytics, and thus developed an inclination for machine learning.

He said, “In [data analytics] research, I used unsupervised machine learning, but I think there’s a lot more out there and I’m taking a data science class now that’s introducing me to that. Machine learning is powerful, but if it just stays in servers, it doesn’t touch us in an impactful way.”

Vacaliuc is interested in the applicable ways CS interacts with users. “We’re always on our phones, you know…the integration of such analytics in the devices we use is where the future is–that’s what I’m interested in, and also why I’m halfway between Electrical Engineering and CS.”

Ultimately, he plans to pursue a PhD in CS and do research. In the meantime, he’ll continue expanding his knowledge base through a wide range of courses and using projects to develop his practical application skills.

His interest in side projects prompted Vacaliuc’s participation in HackRice, and he pitched his idea to Rice sophomores Brandon Kim and Brian Walker, and freshman Habeen Chang. “Over the summer I did software development all day,” he said. “I got a new phone and they gave me free VR gear for it, so I started using it. And I thought, man, it would be great if I could integrate [VR and my coding work]. One night when I was talking to Brandon I mentioned it, and it spawned from there.”

The team planned to extend code development to VR, attempting to build a VR Integrated Development Environment (IDE), a typical type of software used to develop code on a computer. Vacaliuc said, “Porting those over through a mobile VR would be super cheap, since everyone has cell phones.”

His team attempted to create a text editor allowing programmers to develop code in VR, using several windowpanes that would emulate additional monitors in order to enhance productivity. Although his team did not complete their project during the HackRice timeline, they did create an initial prototype. “You can type things in on your laptop, which will then be wirelessly sent to your phone where the data gets mapped onto that canvas,” said Vacaliuc.

Vacaliuc quickly assimilated lessons learned through the hackathon, and dove back into his courses. His immediate goal is to solidify good coding practices that he feels are integral to industry and research, like writing meaningful pseudocode and thinking through problems before implementing them.

He said, “I was reading a book that discussed one of the problems in the informational age. Civil engineers have to abide by building codes, but there are no laws for software engineers. People can write stuff that isn’t scalable, or might fall apart in a few years, and no one will see that until it does.”

Although he sometimes feels frustrated by the strictness of Rice CS professors, he appreciates their insistence on following good practice. Vacaliuc said, “COMP 140 is one of the classes where we are learning the ‘building code’ for software engineers and coders in general, and I think that’s very important.”