Summer Student-Interns Coding for Tomorrow’s Tech Advances

The summer student-intern sat at a long desk in a University of Virginia engineering building, the computer screen in front of her showing codes and calculations, electrical equipment to her left, where she tested a micro-controller for the revolving servomotor she plans to use in making a robotic arm.

While many college students enjoy vacations or work part-time jobs, Shunafrica White and seven other students are spending eight weeks at U.Va., deep in hands-on research in science, technology, engineering and math – the so-called “STEM” disciplines.

The group is this summer’s cohort of the Virginia-North Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation, a U.Va.-led program that aims to help increase the number of underrepresented and minority students in STEM fields. The summer research program provides internships in a range of fields: biology, chemistry, computer science, mechanical and aerospace engineering, pharmacology and systems engineering.  

The alliance, formed by U.Va. in 2007 and funded by the National Science Foundation, comprises nine college and university partners in the two states, and serves to provide enrichment activities to students who are pursuing STEM degrees. The goal: recruit and retain more students in these disciplines and encourage them to continue to graduate studies and related careers.

The alliance is part of an NSF umbrella program, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, which sponsors multi-institution programs all over the country.

The nine partner institutions – Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina; Elizabeth City State University in Elizabeth City; George Mason University in Fairfax; Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte; Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville; Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh; Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond; and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, plus U.Va. – offer individually tailored recruitment, retention and research activities all year long to support students, such as bridge programs, stipends, symposia, tutoring, mentoring, workshops and research experiences.

“We hear from some of our past summer researchers,” alliance program coordinator Jessica McCauley and director Kristin Morgan wrote in an email. “A number of them have continued to obtain research experiences and pursue graduate school in STEM or related fields.”

Bassam Dourassi and Desireé Bounds, both George Mason alums, scored jobs at Intel and Northrop Grumman, respectively.

Racheida Lewis, who earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering at U.Va., is pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering at Virginia Tech. Jasmine Drake graduated from U.Va. with a B.S. in biology and is enrolled at CUNY School of Public Health. 

Alexis Barfield from Elizabeth City State University attended the award-winning U.Va. Summer Research Internship Program last year that associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics Joel Hockensmith directs at the School of Medicine.

The research internship marks the most intensive part of the program, teaming the undergraduate students with faculty mentors and graduate students. The student-interns learn the routines of working in a lab, learn how to use sophisticated computer programs and connect math to practical applications.

White, a student at Elizabeth City State who is from Atlanta, is spending her days in the Mechatronics Lab run by faculty mentor Gavin Garner, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“This is my first opportunity to work on robotics,” White said, adding that she has always liked science and appreciates working with the sophisticated equipment in the U.Va. lab. For her research project, she was testing the computer code for a propeller chip to talk to the microcontroller in the motor that will ultimately direct the movements of a prosthetic arm.

White is looking for a way to build a less expensive model that would be available to more people. Right now, a prosthetic robotic arm costs about $2 million, she said.

She also plans to make a training module for students and, like her alliance peers, to give a presentation on her research toward the end of the program.

The faculty mentors, along with graduate students’ participation, emphasize well-defined research goals, frequent communication and the development of presentation skills. In addition to research presentations, the program offers a writing workshop, guest speakers focused on STEM topics, and a graduate school talk with Keisha John, director of diversity programs in U.Va.’s Office of the Vice President for Research.

Besides mechatronics, other areas the students are working in – through co-sponsorships with U.Va.’s Data Science and nanoSTAR institutes – include medical informatics, nanotechnologies for targeted drug delivery and computing for energy-efficient smart buildings.

Under the wing of assistant systems engineering professor Laura Barnes, Piedmont Virginia Community College sophomore Raven Morris is testing a simulated virtual patient application for her research project.

“The application, which functions like a computer game, will be used to train nurses and doctors to work with patients who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” she said.

“I think it’s amazing to work with University faculty and graduate students, handle real data and conduct research on a level unavailable to undergraduate students until their fourth year or later. It’s been a pleasure to meet other students with similar academic interests, attend faculty-led seminars and participate in fun field trips.”

Morris wanted to learn more about the emerging field of data science and its societal implications, she said. She’s also drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of “big data,” as it’s often called, which brings in computer science, engineering, robotics and statistics.

The summer will give her valuable experience toward the career she has in mind, she said – combining her love of engineering, film and computer graphics in animation and computer simulation.

Kyle Long, born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, also is excited about using computer science to contribute to an interesting research project. A rising sophomore in computer science at Virginia Tech, he sees the summer program as helping him develop more as a computer science student and researcher.  

Under the supervision of Associate Professor of Computer Science Kamin Whitehouse, whose work focuses on energy-efficient buildings, Long is writing a computer program to determine people’s physical details and how they use energy in the household with an eye toward better conservation.

“I like the way things flow in the lab,” Long said. “When everyone is focused and is working well, I can feel the energy which contributes to the successful work environment.”

Since taking a computer science course in high school, he has been “captivated by the discoveries and freshness computer science offers,” he said.

“I am an aspiring computer scientist because I would like to contribute to developing new technologies and software that may progress mankind to an era that was once unthought-of. … That is the beauty of computer science; exploring the unknown, line by line, idea by idea.”

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications