Celebrating 10 years, ECU program supports student research in computer science

In a quiet lab on the second floor of East Carolina University’s Science and Technology Building, nine students study computer screens and tap away at keyboards.

They’re seeking ways to detect breast cancer, to identify dinosaur fossils and to help machines learn — among other projects — as part of ECU’s Department of Computer Science Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Student Kamron Hopkins asks a question during presentations as part of the ECU Department of Computer Science Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

The 10-week session draws college students from throughout the East Coast and pairs them with mentors on various research projects. Celebrating its 10-year anniversary, the computer science REU program is designed for undergraduate students in software engineering, computer science or related majors, with an emphasis on students from underrepresented groups or from academic institutions with limited research opportunities in STEM.

ECU’s Jaxon Bauer, a rising senior computer science major from Goldsboro, is interested in reinforcement learning in machines.

“I wanted to strengthen my understanding of the subject and to be able to make a project that could reflect that,” Bauer said.

As such, he is looking at a high-speed batting model that uses an anthropomorphic robot arm.

“It’s designed to detect high-speed tasks and hit the ball perfectly to get rewards,” Bauer said.

The work has aspects in the real world, he said.

“There are pretty dangerous tasks, whether it be military where these people have to go in and defuse bombs or divers who go underwater where there are sea creatures that can harm them or natural factors that can affect them,” he said. “Being able to put robotics into these environments, to train on human tasks, would be so beneficial for safety and efficiency purposes. And that’s just one field or application.”

He said the REU program has been valuable.

“I love it. I think the aspect of having everybody working in the same lab where we can ask each other questions is hugely beneficial,” Bauer said. “I think getting everybody’s input, whether it be presentations or just asking questions definitely helps direct my research in the right direction.

“I’ve seen that there are a lot of different approaches to research, and I think that’s helped me broaden my sense of what research is. They’ve helped me understand that there are different ways to gather your data or different ways to present it, and so seeing different viewpoints from these other students just really helps me to understand how to do effective research.”

And he believes that will pay off in the end.

“I’m getting so much out of it, personal knowledge and experience and just learning how to work with a team,” Bauer said. “All of these are huge things to have and apply to the real world, whether it’s in getting a job or working on projects in a group environment in classes, certain aspects of this program will definitely help hone those abilities.”

Student Elia Movahed presents his work on cancer detection.

Funded through the National Science Foundation, the program focuses on software and data analytics. ECU Department of Computer Science faculty serving as mentors this summer include Dr. M.N.H. Tabrizi, Dr. Nic Herndon and Jennifer Andriot. Participating students receive a stipend and an allowance for housing, meals and travel.

Elia Movahed is a sophomore computer science major at the University of North Carolina. He hopes to find a way to detect breast cancer faster using tensor decomposition and biomarkers.

“It gives me an area to really dive deep into this type of learning,” he said. “It’s making the models themselves, and it has to do with a lot of analysis. That’s one of the big things about comp sci (computer science) that you don’t get in other majors.”

Though Movahed said the group has worked hard, they’ve also gotten to know each other as part of the program.

“Every Friday when we have our informal leisure hours, it’s good just to turn off the computer and talk to everybody,” he said.

From Greenville, Movahed didn’t have to travel far this summer to get what he called a valuable experience.

“Having a mentor by your side is always great, but being in an area surrounded by like-minded individuals gives you more of a motivation to go after your goals,” he said.

And that goal for the students is published research.

“We all want to publish something,” Movahed said. “We really aim high, and that’s to produce a model. Not many people do that. If you can produce a model, that would be great, but also having a publication in your name that many of us will achieve, that looks amazing.”

Other REU program students include Sofia Azam, Kamron Hopkins, Gregory Maddox, Brannon McCutcheon, Preston Nabors, Eli Richmond and Caleb Starkey, and their project topics include artificial intelligence, sentiment analysis of social media comments, search engine capabilities, no-code software development and teaching transformers how to use calculators.

Brannon McCutcheon presents his work during the ECU Department of Computer Science Research Experience for Undergraduates program.