May32010

‘Posters on the Hill’ Offers Showcase for Undergraduate Research

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By Robin Herron

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner holds aloft a Mason umbrella after meeting Mason student Tarek A. Lahlou, professor Jill Nelson, professor Padmanabhan Seshaiyer and student Minerva Venuti at the Posters on the Hill event. The group also met with Virginia Reps. Gerry Connolly and Frank Wolf, among others. Photo by Evan Cantwell

While many of the 75 undergraduates selected to present their research at the recent Posters on the Hill event had to take a plane to attend, Mason students Tarek A. Lahlou, an electrical engineering major, and Minerva Venuti, a math major, had only a short drive to Capitol Hill to participate.

Along with Lahlou’s mentor, Jill Nelson, Venuti’s mentor, Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, and the director of the Fellowships and Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program, Deirdre Moloney, the students spent a day hobnobbing with members of Congress and their staffs at the event sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR).

Lahlou and Venuti were selected from among 300 applicants for the honor of giving a poster presentation of their research to members of Congress, congressional staff members, federal government officials and others at the Rayburn House Office Building. CUR held the event to impress upon members of Congress the value of undergraduate research and funding.

Applying Electrical Engineering to a Humanitarian Effort

Lahlou presented the work he undertook with Nelson as a participant in Mason’s Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program. The project, “Radio Transmitter Localization for Health Care Applications in Rural Guatemala,” looked at how radio transmissions in Guatemala could be improved for better communication on health issues.

The project grew out of Nelson’s introduction to Karen Owen, a PhD student in GIS at Mason, and to the president of the nonprofit Partner for Surgery, which brings medical care to rural areas of Guatemala.

“We quickly realized that the transmitter localization algorithms I had been developing for military and commercial wireless applications could be a perfect starting point for helping Partner for Surgery locate FM transmitters in rural Guatemala,” says Nelson.

“Adaptation of the localization methods to the FM band, as well as to the terrain and foliage of Guatemala, is the focus of Tarek’s research.”

The junior began working on this project last summer and continued into the fall. At each stage of the process, he says that he and Nelson met the goals they set. He describes the work as now being at a “very unique stage.”

Lahlou developed coverage maps for several radio transmitters in Guatemala and reported his results to Partner for Surgery, but because of unknowns such as transmitter power, antenna configuration and receiver sensitivity, he and Nelson realized there would be some inaccuracies.

In the meantime, Nelson and Kathryn Jacobsen from the Department of Global and Community Health received a faculty research grant from Mason’s Center for Global Studies. The grant enabled them to purchase a hand-held spectrum analyzer and pay for Owen to travel with Jacobsen to Guatemala and take power measurements in the region. When they return, they will provide Lahlou with the measurements for validation and refinement of his coverage models.

Lahlou and Venuti presented their research posters to an audience of members of Congress, congressional staff members, federal government officials and others at the Rayburn House Office Building. Photo by Evan Cantwell

“I am able to, with field measurements coming back from Guatemala, verify the accuracy of my work as well as make improvements to the models. This will assist me in developing a realistic model that works in both theory and practice,” Lahlou says.

“The development of algorithms for FM transmitter localization in rural Guatemala provides a rare opportunity for research at the intersection of electrical engineering and humanitarian outreach,” says Nelson. “I have been extremely enthusiastic about this project since it was conceived during my first meeting with Partner for Surgery, and I am thrilled that Tarek has made it his own.”

One of the benefits of the Undergraduate Apprenticeship program is that helps students become comfortable presenting their research in various venues. In addition to the CUR event, Lahlou has presented his project at the Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Conference, Mason’s Celebration of Achievement, Mason’s Honors College’s Inaugural Alumni Weekend Reception and at the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Interdisciplinary Research Conference.

Unlike some research projects that end with the semester, Lahlou’s project will continue.

“There are currently several directions in which the research can grow, and I will be exploring these options as I continue working on this project through the end of my time here at George Mason,” he says.

Lahlou says he plans to continue his education after graduating and eventually earn a doctorate in electrical engineering.

“I would like to stay in the research field in the aspects of combining modern technology and humanitarian aid. While working on this project I have realized that this is a very rewarding application of engineering that has enormous room for growth.”

He adds, “My experience with the apprenticeship program was eye-opening in planning my future. In research, we face questions that have no answers. By undergoing this experience, I have obtained skills and abilities that I would not have learned in the classroom. The apprenticeship program helped to foster these abilities and provide support, feedback and advice from other undergraduate researchers facing these same difficulties for the first time.”

Math on the Brain

Like Lahlou, Venuti also participated in the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program last summer and fall. However, she had actually begun working under Seshaiyer’s mentorship in 2008, when she was accepted into the Math Department’s Undergraduate Research in Computational Mathematics Program.

She spent a year working on the project that she presented at CUR, “Mathematical and Computational Modeling of an Intracranial Saccular Aneurysm,” under that program and then continued under the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program.

Now a senior who will graduate this month, Venuti has been working on a mathematical key to a real problem: why do some brain aneurysms (a blood-filled bulge of a blood vessel) enlarge and rupture?

To investigate the hypothesis that pulsing blood flow causes the arterial wall to become unstable, Venuti developed a mathematical model that incorporates the interaction between the blood flow, wall structure and cerebral spinal fluid that surrounds the aneurysm.

“The next step in my research was to go back and relax some of the oversimplifications I had made to make my model more realistic, specifically adding back in viscosity to the model of the fluid in a human brain,” Venuti says.

“While I’ve been working on this for the past year I’ve been running into problems with the output my code gives me not matching up with what I would expect. While this is very frustrating to me, most everyone I’ve talked to says that this is a normal part of research. I am hoping to continue working on this research for a bit longer, if for no other reason than I hate leaving this problem unsolved!”

Although working with anything to do with blood “was very outside my comfort level,” she says, “I have greatly enjoyed working on this research topic, both because of the mathematics I have learned in the process and because I’ve learned to overcome some of my hesitation against biology.”

Venuti has presented her research at 14 different conferences over the past two years. Six were poster presentations and eight were talks, including the SIAM Annual Meeting in Denver where her poster won an undergraduate award. She has also published her research in the SIAM Undergrad Online Journal (SIURO).

“One of the exciting outcomes has been the broader impact of the project through a K-12 outreach component,” Seshaiyer points out.

Various aspects of Venuti’s project were analyzed by a high school teacher from Arlington Public Schools who worked with Seshaiyer and Venuti in the National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program in summer 2009.

“The teacher was able to take Minerva’s research experience into her intensified precalculus classroom and teach the students how mathematical tools from precalculus can be used effectively in understanding how to solve real-world problems,” Seshaiyer says.

Originally from Boston, Venuti transferred to Mason from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She will soon “transfer” again, as her husband’s job has them relocating to Alabama. “I am hoping to continue my education, maybe someday earning my PhD,” she says.

“Before I started working on research, I was very unsure what I wanted to do with my degree in mathematics. I had mostly chosen it because math classes are so easy for me. However, once I started doing research, I got hooked!

“I really enjoy seeing how the math that I learn in class can be used to solve real-world problems. Participating in the apprenticeship program was also a great learning experience for me, as not only did I get to continue my own research, I also got to meet other students who were doing research in areas I know nothing about. So I had a chance to both learn from them about their fields of interest and talk about some of our shared problems — balancing normal school work and research, and how to keep going when you feel very stuck on your project.”

“Minerva has a very strong background in mathematics,” says Seshaiyer. “Her analytical skills are exceptional and she is constantly able to utilize her mathematical skills to understand and explain problems in other interdisciplinary research areas. Our collaboration has been extremely productive and has given me a valuable mentoring experience.”

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