NCSA Student Spotlight: Erica Pereira

07.20.18 -

When one thinks about visualization work at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), they probably imagine the illustrious work of the Advanced Visualization Lab, the DAV group or VI-Bio and their work around phenomena both cosmic and terrestrial.

But those types of visualizations aren't the only type of visual representation being explored at NCSA. Programs like the SPIN (Students Pushing INnovation) internship and REU-INCLUSION (Research Experiences for Undergraduates Incubating a New Community of Leaders Using Software, Inclusion, Innovation, Interdisciplinary and OpeN-Science) program give NCSA interns a hands-on look at visualization, oftentimes to meet diverse, transdisciplinary goals.

One of these students is Erica Pereira, an REU-INCLUSION intern who is spending 10 weeks at NCSA from DePauw University, where she studies computer science. Originally from the west side of Chicago, Erica was drawn to REU-INCLUSION because of the flexibility and diversity of research opportunities.

"I was intrigued by NCSA's REU program because it included environmental justice and marginalized communities," said Pereira. "I haven't heard of anything that ties in social justice and computer science before, and that was a huge factor in me coming to NCSA."

Once her interest was piqued by the REU program, Pereira was connected with Anita Chan, Faculty Affiliate at NCSA and Associate Professor of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, who acts as a mentor, helping Erica mold and focus her ideas with a significance on multidisciplinary research.

"NCSA is one of the few spaces with supercomputing resources, and with a campus environment that intentionally conceptualizes transdisciplinarity," said Chan. "There's not normally a lot of emphasis on social change or social transformation in computer science. You'll find reverberations of that at NCSA because it's an institution that thinks about the application of computing resources across disciplines."

Combining research disciplines is crucial to making new societal insights. In Erica's case, this means combining data collected from cities and governments (civic tech), particularly the City of Chicago, with both programmed and non-programmed visualization to create a tool that allows users to visualize massive civic tech data sets with relative ease, gaining advanced insights about neighborhoods and social trends.

"The data set that I'm going to be visualizing is a public health data set that's open and available to the public: life expectancy based on community location," said Pereira. "Once you dig into the data, you can start to see how life expectancy varies by location and race. We also looked at cause of death based on sex, race and neighborhood. All of these sets are available and now it's just a matter of visualizing the statistics and making them digestible."

Due to the open source nature of Pereira's research, there is ample opportunity for others to build off of her work, visualizing their own civic tech data sets. Ideally, this research will lower the barrier for those who seek to collect data to gain tangible social insights.

"Moving forward, I want to reach out to social actors who are interested in getting involved with data visualization and diversifying the data science field," said Pereira. "I attended a data visualization conference this past June, and I realized that I was the youngest person there. It made me realize that, right now, the civic tech field is filled with professionals—they went to school for this. I want to give technical leverage to social actors and get them involved in visualizing data."

Because the REU program is only 10 weeks, a conscientious hands-on mentor is crucial to student success, and Pereira has found an ideal mentor in Chan for a variety of reasons.

"We've had to be flexible with our research," Pereira said. "I originally wanted to focus on environmental, criminal and housing data in Chicago. Then, I went to the Journalism and Data Visualization Conference, and realized all of this data was already being visualized, and I'd just be replicating someone's work. Anita and I then started talking about building off of existing visualization and creating a tool so people can replicate what I'm doing. I would never have put all of these pieces together without Anita."

The feeling, however, seems to be mutual between mentor and mentee.

"One of the nice aspects of REU-INCLUSION, and particularly at NCSA, is bridging these conversations that go between STEM and non-STEM fields," said Chan. "We want to bring in more students like Erica, who have these transdisciplinary interests."

About NCSA

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation's science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from around the globe use advanced digital resources to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing one third of the Fortune 50® for more than 30 years by bringing industry, researchers, and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

About REU-INCLUSION

INCLUSION (Incubating a New Community of Leaders Using Software, Inclusion, Innovation, Interdisciplinary and OpeN-Science) is a 10-week software-in-research training experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

In INCLUSION, pairs of students will work on socially-impactful research centered around open source software, guided by pairs of mentors. This program is made possible by the National Science Foundation (NSF).