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Students sample life of a researcher

By : Rachel Coker

Student Leonid Domnitser, left, Associate Professor Michael Lewis, second from left, and others observe Weiyi Meng of Webscalers explain his invention to improve Web-search technology.

A summer program funded by the National Science Foundation brought computer science students from around the country to Binghamton to gain research experience.
Nine students from schools such as Rutgers University and Florida State participated in the inaugural year of the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Binghamton. Each received $5,000 and free campus housing for the 10-week program, during which they were matched up with Binghamton faculty members and graduate students for research work.

“The faculty have a genuine interest in the outcome of the projects,” said Michael Lewis, associate professor of computer science and director of the program. “They’re not just class projects to keep the students busy for a summer.”

Lewis, who worked on the grant proposal for the program with Cynthia Sedgwick, then associate dean of the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, said he felt Binghamton could offer students a unique and inspiring experience through the REU. He said the students saw that research pays off in ways that working in industry may not.

“It’s very rewarding to work on your own ideas and to determine your own research agenda,” Lewis said. “You get to decide for yourself what you think is important, and tackle problems that no one may have thought of before.”

While the primary goal of the REU is to get students excited about careers in research, it may have other benefits as well. Students who forged a strong connection with a Binghamton faculty member may return here for graduate school. The research projects may also lead to collaborations between Binghamton faculty and educators at the students’ home institutions.

The NSF funds REU programs in 19 subject areas; this summer, there were more than 45 sites focused on computer and information science and engineering. Competition for places in the program can be fierce; the program pays relatively well and is considered a prestigious distinction on a student’s résumé.

Patrick Madden, associate professor of computer science, said he had a “regular job” before attending graduate school. He’d like to encourage more promising undergraduates to consider academia and felt that serving as a mentor in the REU was a good start.

“We don’t have as many people entering graduate school as I think we should,” he said. “A lot of students get their bachelor’s degree and go off to a job somewhere. I see this as a way of giving undergraduates a taste of what graduate school is like and helping them look a bit further off on the horizon to think about a career in research.”

Madden worked with Gregory Stoddard, one of two Binghamton students in the REU, on a project related to the design of integrated circuits for computer chips. “He’s done a tremendous amount of work,” Madden said. “I think we’re going to be able to submit a paper in October. This is a project I’ve had in mind for a long time and just hadn’t had the right student.”

In addition to their projects, the REU students attended a series of lectures. Some featured faculty speaking about their research; others were career-oriented discussions on topics such as good writing and how to start a company.

Joey Schmitt, 18, now a sophomore majoring in computer science and math at Notre Dame, worked on a grid computing project with Lewis. “I’d like to go to grad school and I wanted to see what it’s like before I make the decision to actually go,” he said.

Nava Chitrik, 21, now a senior majoring in electrical engineering at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, worked with Mark Zhang, associate professor of computer science.

Zhang wrote an algorithm that clusters data to make searching easier; Chitrik translated it from a high-level computer language into a more common language called C. “It runs at least 10 times faster now,” she said.

Chitrik said the students got to know each other well and helped each other with their projects. She also spoke with many of the faculty mentors and visited several of their labs. “It’s not like I just had one mentor,” she said.

Chitrik said she hopes to do research in industry rather than academia. She said Lewis had a major impact on her experience.

“Mike inspired us,” she said. “He’s really motivating.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08