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Students learn research skills through summer program

by Greg St. Martin

How does sus­pense affect heart rate? Or what can be learned from mod­eling and ana­lyzing bacteria’s move­ments or exam­ining the dif­fer­ences in coor­di­na­tion due to hand dom­i­nance with and without visual feed­back? These are just a few exam­ples of the range of research topics explored by first-​​year stu­dents last month in the Summer Dis­covery Expe­ri­ence, an inten­sive summer ini­tia­tive run by the National Sci­ence Foundation-​​funded PRISM pro­gram.

In this four-​​week immer­sive pro­gram, stu­dents expe­ri­ence hands-​​on research in math­e­matics, physics, and biology, and receive an intro­duc­tion to basic research and data analysis methods—all under the guid­ance of fac­ulty and stu­dent men­tors. The summer pro­gram is taught by three fac­ulty mem­bers: Dagmar Sternad, pro­fessor of biology and elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering; Alain Karma, pro­fessor of physics; and Christo­pher King, pro­fessor of math­e­matics.

The summer pro­gram is one of the activ­i­ties offered throughout the year by PRISM, run by an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of five fac­ulty mem­bers that also includes Rick Porter, pro­fessor in math­e­matics, and Christos Zahopoulos, director of the Center for STEM Edu­ca­tion. Other com­po­nents of PRISM include a week-​​long inno­v­a­tive math­e­matics course held in the late summer, a fall lec­ture series, and an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary class in the spring. Together, these com­po­nents are designed to attract and engage stu­dents through math­e­matics and sci­ence research as well as peer mentoring.

The summer pro­gram, Sternad said, gives stu­dents an advan­tage by famil­iar­izing them with research tech­niques and oppor­tu­ni­ties early on in their under­grad­uate expe­ri­ences. She noted it’s also an envi­ron­ment in which stu­dents get the freedom and flex­i­bility to explore their inter­ests, test out their the­o­ries, and solve prob­lems without the worry of being graded.

“In this pro­gram, stu­dents can follow their own noses,” Sternad said. “They define their own research ques­tions and encounter their own prob­lems and chal­lenges. It is the chal­lenges encoun­tered when they opti­misti­cally want to solve a problem that present an eye-​​opening expe­ri­ence for them.”

During the first three weeks of the Summer Dis­covery Expe­ri­ence, stu­dents get a crash course in topics ranging from random walks to heart arrhythmia and move­ment con­trol through both instruc­tion and hands-​​on prac­tice. At the end of each week, all stu­dents give pre­sen­ta­tions on the research projects they con­ducted. In the fourth week, they divide into groups and select a spe­cific research project of their own choice and design, usu­ally related to one of the topics encoun­tered in the pre­vious three weeks.

Dena Guo, a rising second-​​year stu­dent, found the summer pro­gram a par­tic­u­larly enriching learning envi­ron­ment. “The thing I liked most was that it focused on the process and how we approached our prob­lems, rather than whether our answers were right or wrong.” Her group’s final project involved cre­ating an algo­rithm to ana­lyze a patient’s elec­tro­car­dio­gram, specif­i­cally the rate and reg­u­larity of heart­beats. Guo also cred­ited the summer pro­gram with exposing her to Sternad’s Action Lab, which opened her eyes to many exciting poten­tial research opportunities.

Eric Holtzman, a rising third-​​year stu­dent, also attested to the program’s impact. He par­tic­i­pated in his first year, and this year he served as a mentor. He explained how he learned even more the second time around from guiding other stu­dents’ perspectives.

Through the summer pro­gram, Holtzman had also learned MATLAB, a high-​​level lan­guage for numer­ical com­pu­ta­tion, analysis, and visu­al­iza­tion. He said these skills helped him to land a co-​​op this summer at the Allen Insti­tute for Brain Sci­ence in Seattle.

“It’s amazing to see the stu­dents arrive without any pro­gram­ming expe­ri­ence and then see how far they come in solving their prob­lems,” Holtzman said. “The skills they learn, par­tic­u­larly under­standing data analysis, are incred­ibly useful in the research they’ll be doing later on.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on June 6, 2013

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