CS and IT grad students tackle
real-world challenges head on
�We always put a high priority on recruiting females and minorities.�
� Professor Stephen Yau, Arizona State University
�No matter what university you choose, find a topic you care deeply about.�
� Stacy Branham, Virginia Tech
By Sonya Stinson
Graduate programs across the nation offer a wide range of subspecialties and research areas in computer science and information technology. Students are designing computers that use less energy, creating virtual reality games for the classroom, examining the impact of computer technology on human relationships and much more.
As one student told us, choosing the right program at the right school is key.
Stacy Branham: PhD in CS at Virginia Tech
�It�s important to make sure no matter which university you�re choosing, you find a topic you care deeply about,� advises Stacy Branham, a recent PhD graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA).
If several faculty members are doing work in your areas of interest, it�s a plus. �You may want to switch advisors,� Branham notes. �You may want to have multiple collaborative opportunities.�
Prospective students looking for a suitable program should ask current grad students what they think of the university and its environment. �A huge part of the experience is where the school is located,� Branham says.
Branham, who successfully defended her dissertation and received her PhD in computer science in February, explains the focus of her studies this way: �I�m working at the intersection of computer science and social science. I care about how humans and computers get along with each other in close relationships.�
Branham�s area of concentration, human-computer interaction, is an interdisciplinary field involving courses in psychology, anthropology, engineering, computer science, mathematics and other subjects.
She wants to understand more about what�s going on when, say, a couple sitting together in a restaurant are paying more attention to their smart phones than to each other. �I�ve heard stories from couples where they will be literally sitting in the same bed texting each other instead of turning their heads to say something,� Branham says.
In her study, Branham explored whether new technology designs can actually help bridge the connection gap. She�s currently considering an application that would function as a shared digital diary. The idea is for the app to inspire self-reflection and face-to-face conversation.
�Face-to-face conversations that take place as a result of keeping a shared digital journal have more depth than electronic-only conversations, and foster empathy and reconnection between partners,� Branham says. �So, the technology first acts as a catalyst, then fades into the background.�
Branham, who received a prestigious Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship for her doctoral studies, got her BS in computer science from Virginia Tech in 2007.
Branham will do a post-doctoral study project at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and then plans to seek a university teaching post.
Erica Feldman: MS in IT administration and security at NJIT
Erica Feldman was driven by a childhood fascination with computers. A choice between two high school electives set her career path.
�I decided to ditch student orchestra and take a programming course,� Feldman says. �It was the best thing I ever did.� She went on to take the first part of a two-year Cisco certification program at her school and finished the program at a local community college.
�When I graduated high school, I knew a lot about programming and networking,� says Feldman. She now has a masters degree in IT administration and security from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT, Newark, NJ).
Feldman received financial assistance from a Renard Communications scholarship for students in the Albert Dorman Honors College at NJIT (Renard Communications is the parent company of Diversity/Careers). With that support and several other academic awards, Feldman entered the university�s accelerated BS/MS dual degree program. She received her BS and her masters degree in information technology in 2010.
Feldman says her IT administration and security degree combines courses in forensics and networking, covering topics like wireless security, physical security and penetration testing.
Today Feldman works as a security engineer at managed services firm Deloitte & Touche LLP (New York, NY), where she develops and maintains content for clients� security information and event management systems.
In summer 2013, Feldman and her fianc�, Rich Acosta, a Unix systems engineer, won the $10,000 Splunk App Dev Contest with their creation of the Splunk for Your Car trip logging app. They combined Splunk technology with an Android phone, an OBD2 Bluetooth adapter, Dropbox and Google Maps.
Feldman is as excited today about the �a-ha� moments that come with programming as she was when she was a teen.
�Sometimes you don�t get it at first. Then the light bulb goes off and it all makes so much sense,� she says. �You understand why it would be useful to automate things, to do things with a script rather than by hand. It�s so beautiful!�
Marlon Mejias: PhD in CS at Howard University
Marlon Mejias, a PhD candidate in computer science education at Howard University (Washington, DC), is studying how to apply game technology to make computer science courses more engaging. His research project is to develop a virtual reality game.
�The game looks at social interaction and manages that process,� Mejias says. �We incorporate different aspects of games like leader boards and puzzle-solving to motivate students.� The game also features badges and ranks. A key goal of the project is to include a mechanism for giving acknowledgement and feedback to participating students.
�We�re trying to give students an idea of where they rank against others in the department, and help them recognize specific skills they have developed outside the classroom,� says Mejias. He wants to teach at the college level once he gets his doctorate.
Mejias has spent time observing computer science education in middle school classrooms that use an active learning approach, and he thinks teachers of college students should adopt the same model.
�I�ve noticed that students on the senior level are not really engaged with the curriculum,� Mejias says. �They are just taking classes because of a requirement they have to fulfill.�
Mejias got a BS in systems and computer science from Howard in 2005 and an MS at George Washington University in systems engineering in 2013. He interned as a systems administrator at the World Bank in Washington, DC, and as a network engineer and project manager for the DC Department of Transportation. He hopes to finish his PhD in 2015.
Besides computer science education, an interdisciplinary program that debuted in 2012, other graduate areas of specialization in Howard�s department of systems and computer science include gaming and interactive media, computer networking, cybersecurity and computational sciences.
Somayeh Sardashti: PhD in CS at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Wisconsin-Madison computer science PhD candidate Somayeh Sardashti is conducting research on the development of energy-efficient systems architecture.
�One major challenge computer scientists are facing is the high power consumption of computer systems and its impact on the environment,� Sardashti says. �Big U.S. data centers can each consume up to one hundred times more energy than a standard office building. I focus on how we can reduce power and energy usage.�
Sardashti earned a BS in computer engineering in 2003 and a masters in computer architecture in 2006, both from the University of Tehran, Iran. She received an MS in computer science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011.
As a computer architect, Sardashti was interested in the question of how energy flows within a computer system.
�We found that memory systems are one of the main bottlenecks, so I focused my research on how we can make those systems more energy efficient,� she says.
Sardashti won first place in the 2013 student research competition held at the Grace Hopper Celebration in Minneapolis. The competition was sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery�s ACM-Women (ACM-W) organization. She chairs the Wisconsin ACM-W mentoring program, through which she has mentored female undergraduate students and organized speaker series.
Her research earned the university a patent, SuperTag Cache for Energy-Optimized Compression, which was one of seven finalists in the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation�s innovation awards. Her work has also been accepted for IEEE Micro�s 2018 Top Picks in Computer Architecture, where about ten computer architecture papers from 2013 are honored.
Sardashti expects to graduate in summer 2018, after which she�d like to land an industry post in her field.
�I�d like to have an impact on the next generation of computers,� she says.
Erika Mesh: PhD in computing and information sciences at RIT
Erika Mesh�s doctoral research at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT, Rochester, NY) delves into the process scientists use when designing software. Her work is supported by a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.
Software engineers are trained on software process; scientists are not, she explains. As a result, problems that could be prevented or detected via standard software engineering techniques may persist and cause harm to the primary scientific research.
�Are they writing notes?� she wants to know. �Are they testing at a small level? What are their priorities?�
Mesh has had to deal head-on with a major dilemma for scientific software developers, known as the oracle problem.
�If you get a result that�s unexpected, it�s difficult to determine if it�s the software that�s wrong or if we have to change the scientific theory,� she says.
Mesh�s current advisor was working on a different scientific software project when she started her graduate studies. �The program had been written by software engineers and it worked relatively well,� Mesh says. �But the oracle problem gave us some nightmares.�
After she got her BS in software engineering from RIT in 2002, Mesh spent nine years working as a commercial software engineer. That stint included nearly five years at Harris RF Communications (Rochester) designing embedded systems for military units, and four years at a Perinton, NY firm later acquired by Windstream, working on online sales support software. She returned to RIT in 2011 and earned an MS in software engineering in 2012.
Mesh, who is in the second year of her PhD program, is trying to narrow down a topic for her thesis proposal. After graduation, she�d like to get a university post that combines teaching with collaborative research.
�I would like to be able to look at a problem and say, �I wonder if there�s a pattern?�� she says. �I�d like to be able to send an email to another faculty member who does similar research and say, �Hey, if you come across something like this in your data, I�d be interested in taking a peek at it.� In academia, I have the freedom to explore new areas and find new collaborations.�
Adrian Cabrera: master of IT and management at IIT
Adrian Cabrera started his graduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology�s School of Applied Technology (IIT, Chicago and Wheaton) right after he finished his bachelor of information technology and management at IIT in May 2013. He�s specializing in web design and application development.
Cabrera works full time in the IIT marketing and communications department. �I get real-world experience by being a web developer, and my classes are hands on, not just theoretical,� says Cabrera. He notes that the IIT graduate program is ideal for working professionals, offering both nighttime and online courses.
A project in one of Cabrera�s cloud computing courses resulted in the creation of an event called �IIT on da Cloud.�
�It started off as, �Hey, let�s just get a couple of students to meet up and talk about cloud computing and learn how to configure devices,�� Cabrera says. �But it turned into a mini conference.�
He and a fellow student raised $5,000 to sponsor the conference by chatting up career fair vendors, and the university matched the donations with another $5,000.
�We got to teach other students about cloud computing, and we gave them a chance to create their own private clouds,� Cabrera says. �We used the money to purchase servers and prizes for the event. Some students who attended even got internships out of it.�
Cabrera recently took a project in mobile forensics to the School of Applied Technology�s annual Foren-Secure conference.
�For this project, we were studying the effectiveness of doing a factory reset on an Android device,� he says. �We found that even though people do a factory reset to erase all their data, we were able to use free programs from the Internet to get that data back.�
Cabrera would like to have his own web design and development company someday. For now, he�s enjoying his job at IIT.
�I love the work environment and I really love giving back to the university,� he says.
Yafeng Lu: PhD in CS at Arizona State University
Yafeng Lu is in her second year of doctoral studies in computer science at Arizona State University (ASU, Tempe, AZ). She works on a variety of projects as part of ASU�s visual analytics and data exploration research lab team. Her research focuses on data analysis and visualization of regression analysis in building prediction models.
�I�m working on movie box office predictions,� Lu says. �We collect movie-related Twitter data, including the number of tweets posted about the movie and how many times the trailers have been viewed when a link to the trailer is included in the tweet. This is valuable information we can use in addition to metadata from the movie database, which includes the budget, the number of theaters in which the movie will be released, the distributors, etcetera.�
Lu�s latest research interest came about after she participated in an academic competition to predict opening-week box office results for new movie releases using self-developed visual analysis tools. The contest was sponsored by VisWeek, a visualization conference of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Her team won an award in the contest and presented the results at VisWeek 2013, held in Atlanta, GA last October.
The school of computing, informatics and decision systems engineering at ASU resulted from a combination of several entities within the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, according to Professor Stephen Yau.
ASU has also established a university-wide information assurance (IA) center. Information assurance is a multidisciplinary field that includes subjects ranging from science and engineer to management, public policy and social sciences. �This area has attracted worldwide attention, especially after the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001,� Yau says.
The IA center�s status as a national center for academic excellence draws significant scholarship and fellowship funding to the university. While those dollars are not pegged exclusively for diverse students, Yau says, �we always put a high priority on recruiting females and minorities.�
Lu has a 2010 BS in information security and a 2012 MS in software theory from Northeastern University in Shenyang, China.
She hopes to have a career in academia once she�s earned her doctorate, but if that doesn�t work out, her plan B is to join the research department of a large company.
Lindsay Neubauer: MS to PhD in software engineering at Columbia University
Lindsay Neubauer just finished her first year in the computer science PhD program at Columbia University (New York, NY) where she�s studying
software engineering. Her current research focus is on protecting privacy during the testing of software systems, which can be especially daunting in applications that involve databases with sensitive user information, such as healthcare records.
�It�s important to maintain privacy for patients in the database,� Neubauer says. �But in order to be effective in testing the code, the testers need to run the program with real user data. So there�s a tradeoff.� Neubauer and a fellow grad student are working to come up with a process that satisfies both testing requirements and privacy concerns.
Neubauer, who expects to complete her doctoral studies around 2018, received a BS in computer science and psychology from Georgetown University (Washington, DC) in 2011. After graduating, she joined a small government contractor working in both those fields.
�I really liked working there, but it made me realize that I really wanted to focus just on computer science,� she says.
Neubauer had done a summer internship at Google in New York City as an undergrad, so she liked the idea of moving to the Big Apple to continue her education. Once she finishes her doctorate, she wants to teach.
�I�m hoping to become a full, tenured faculty member at a university,� Neubauer says. �But I realize those positions can be scarce, so I�m keeping my options open.�
Charles Senteio: PhD candidate in health informatics at the University of Michigan
At the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), PhD student Charles Senteio is examining how health informatics can improve outpatient diabetes care.
�My dissertation centers on how psycho-social factors, things other than age, co-morbidity, and genetics, enter into individualized goals that physicians make with their patients,� says Senteio.
As an example, Senteio explains how diabetic patients and their doctors often negotiate the target number for the hemoglobin A1c blood test, commonly used to assess the long-term progression of the disease. Doctors may agree to hold off on prescribing insulin when hemoglobin A1c levels are higher than recommended, depending on the patient�s individual circumstances, like dietary backsliding during a summer vacation, he says. Before starting insulin, the doctor and patient may agree to wait another three months to see if the patient can lower the numbers naturally through weight loss, healthy eating and exercise.
�I would like to create an index that helps quantify the patient and doctor�s understanding of the social context in which these decisions are made,�
Senteio received a BS in math and computer science from Central Connecticut State University (New Britain) in 1992 and an MBA from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 1994. After getting his MBA, he became a management consultant in IT strategy for Booz Allen Hamilton and Accenture in Dallas.
�I flew around the world and helped Fortune 100 companies assess their IT capabilities, costs and competitive markets,� he says.
Although Senteio was doing well financially, he realized he wanted a career where he could impact lives. The healthcare industry seemed like a good place to seek that opportunity. He quit his job and started a consulting practice in healthcare, which became a provider of home care and hospice services.
In 2011, Senteio returned to the University of Michigan to pursue his doctorate, which he plans to finish within two years. He�s juggling his doctoral studies with a masters in social work, which he expects to complete in 2018, and a research job at the local Veterans Administration.
�I decided that a PhD woul d help me amplify my voice, step up my game, and get the training and credentials I need to make more of an impact,� he says.
Garima Sinha: MS in software management at Carnegie Mellon
After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University�s Silicon Valley campus (Moffett Field, CA) with a 2013 MS in software management, Garima Sinha landed a job as a product manager at Facebook in Menlo Park, CA.
Even as a newbie, she�s already worked on some high-priority projects for the social media giant. �You get a lot of feedback on your projects, and you get to drive a lot of projects on your own,� Sinha says.
Facebook recruiters were impressed with Carnegie Mellon-SV�s software management program, which emphasizes innovation and entrepreneurship, Sinha says. It also helped that she had experience working at Internet companies in her native India. She spent two years working as a product manager at ibiboGroup in Haryana, India, following her 2010 graduation from the Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology in New Delhi. Her bachelor of engineering degree is in information technology.
When she decided to come to the United States for an advanced degree, she found that the Carnegie Mellon program, which is offered through the school�s college of engineering, was �the perfect fit,� she says.
�The program deals with every vertical of project management: conceptualization, product strategy, product design, innovation, investment and monetization,� Sinha says.
One of Sinha�s class projects involved studying human-computer interaction to aid in the development of telephones for aging consumers. �We had to conceptualize a phone that would work well for people who cannot see well or whose hands are not strong enough to hold the phone,� she says.
Many of the faculty members at Carnegie Mellon-SV have Silicon Valley corporate experience.
�One of my professors was the former chief technical officer of Nokia,� Sinha says. �Another has invested in startups here in the Valley for about thirty years, and he�s conducted research about why startups succeed or fail. From people like these, you can learn about what happens in the real world.�
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