Rice University's Research Experience for Undergraduates in Data Science (REU DS) program hosted twelve students from across the nation this past summer for a 10-week data science research internship on campus. Undergrads came from local state institutions like the University of Texas, as well as from Clark Atlanta University, Purdue, MIT, Harvard, and Cornell.
The program aims to provide access and exposure to cutting-edge research in the field of data science through direct faculty mentorship. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the field of data science — which encompasses computer science, statistics, electrical engineering, and applied mathematics — a multi-disciplinary group of faculty members participate in the program. Faculty were paired up one-on-one with undergraduate students. The interns also worked directly with the faculty's lab members including doctoral or post-doctoral researchers.
The 2022 REU DS program came to fruition under the leadership of CS Assistant Teaching Professor and REU Program Director Risa Myers. According to Myers, “the goals of the summer program are to introduce students to academic research in the field of data science, to help them build relationships with peers and mentors in the field, and to inspire them to pursue a career in research.”
To this end, Assistant Professor Arlei Silva directly mentored his summer intern, Caleb Saul, by meeting with him two to three times a week to build flood prediction tools using machine learning as a means to develop “flood mitigation strategies,” especially in the context of urbanization and climate change. Even while traveling to Brazil and Colombia, Dr. Silva remained in touch with Caleb through virtual meetings and was impressed by Caleb’s ability to learn a great deal about “PyTorch and flood modeling in such a short period of time.” Although summer was “too short for us to investigate all the new ideas we had as we learned more about the problem, I hope our collaboration during the REU motivates Caleb to continue doing great work, and I look forward to seeing where his academic interests will take him in the future,” said Silva.
The undergraduate interns gained academic research experience not only from their direct mentors, but also from the Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) program at Rice. IBL's Director, Caroline Quenemoen, and the Senior Associate Director, Elizabeth Eich, held weekly workshops for the interns to introduce them to different aspects of “being a scientist.”
Rice's campus is located in a strategic hub of leading medical facilities and the fast-growing clean energy sector. Through the REU DS program, summer interns were able to visit The Greentown Labs and The Ion, internationally recognized start-up technology incubators in the Houston area. The REU DS program provided an immersive experience for summer interns by introducing them to the practical day-to-day research activities of scientists, as well as the diverse set of skills scientists gain through their research — ranging from innovation, entrepreneurship, to expert communication.
REU DS intern Olivia Ellie Fassman is an undergraduate from Cornell University pursuing a double major in Math and Computer Science and a minor in Southeast Asian studies. Her project focused on inferring evolutionary fitness parameters (e.g., birth rate and death rates) of phylogenetic trees constructed from genetic sequencing data of cancer cells. Ellie conducted her research in the lab of Dean and Professor Luay Nakhleh with direct supervision from Assistant Research Professor Huw Ogilvie.
She describes her experience with the REU DS as providing her with the “confidence to conduct research in a university setting that reaffirmed her plans to pursue a PhD (in computer science) out of undergraduate.” To this end, Fassman is grateful to the REU DS program for organizing seminars and workshops where she learned about the practical logistics of applying to graduate school programs which she found to be “extremely helpful;” she credits her newfound confidence in the application process to the REU DS program.
The internship culminated with a poster session on July 29th in Duncan Hall where the interns were given a platform to showcase and discuss their summer research. The session was attended by the Rice community at large, and judges selected three students as first, second, and third place winners. This year’s award winners included Daniel Cufino in first place for his research on Exploring Effective Data Augmentation Methods for Wearable Multi-channel Time-Series Data under the mentorship of Assistant Professor Akane Sano of the Computational Well-Being Group. Intern Jiamu Bai placed second with her research on Mergeable Federated Learning using Representer Sketch. Jiamu’s mentors included Associate Professor Anshumali Shrivastava and graduate students Zichang Liu and Zhaozhuo Xu. The third-place winner was Caleb Saul who presented his research on Flood Prediction with Recurrent Neural Networks under the mentorship of Assistant Professor Arlei Silva.
Although the students came from a diverse background in their academics and previous research experience, Myers was pleased to note “they conducted great research and forged strong friendships.”