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2021 NCSA Summer Internships Provide Valuable Experiences to Undergraduates


REU and SPIN students during a tour

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign offers a variety of summer programs that provides undergraduates the opportunity to address fundamental challenges in high-performance computing, data analysis, visualization, cybersecurity and other areas of interest.

This summer, the programs conducted their internship activities in a virtual setting due to COVID-19 and safety concerns. Despite these challenges, students in NCSA’s Students Pushing INnovationREU-INCLUSION, and NCSA International Research internship programs had productive and successful experiences in all three sessions. Interns participated and contributed to various interdisciplinary projects at NCSA involving high-performance computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

This cohort of student interns and fellows have achieved a lot in two short summer months. They worked on challenging projects and had the opportunity, for example, to try and experiment with new machine learning models to detect human aggression or analyze medical data using advanced statistics to resolve racial health disparities in treating breast cancer patients. They have developed a taste for research and felt empowered by their summer experience. It is remarkable that they have developed a sense of ownership over their summer projects and will continue their research this upcoming academic year.

Olena Kindratenko, NCSA Senior Research Coordinator

The programs supplied interns with valuable skills and knowledge on advanced digital resources, giving them insights into their future careers. We highlight three students by sharing their experiences and takeaways from the 10-week summer programs.

NCSA REU-INCLUSION Fellow Haihley Connors worked alongside Illinois Nutrition Professor Zeynep Madak-Erdogan and Ph.D. student Ashlie Santaliz Casiano on “Resolving Racial Health Disparities by Using Advanced Statistics and Machine Learning on Complex Multidimensional Datasets.” The project uses big data and high-performance computing to develop tools and methods that help resolve racial health disparities.

“We worked on determining if African American women respond differently to Fulvestrant, a type of anticancer drug when compared to non-Hispanic white individuals,” says Connors. “Using patient datasets from healthcare collaborators, I generated a curve that compared the survival probabilities of each patient based on race. We found that non-Hispanic white women have a higher overall survival rate when compared to African American women.”

Connors has always been intrigued with research and wanted to do more with her summer. She shared that NCSA’s REU-INCLUSION program enabled her to learn and enhance skills, participate in professional development opportunities, and make strong connections with people in the advanced research community. Connors especially enjoyed exploring and expanding her passions on healthcare and resolving racial disparities that affect women like her.

“The point of my entire project was to educate others about the disparities that African American women with breast cancer face,” says Connors. “There is little research done on African American women with breast cancer and Fulvstrant therapy and African American women in general. I helped contribute new knowledge and groundbreaking results that will benefit affected communities tremendously. As an African American woman, I am proud to have worked on this project and plan to continue working on it this fall.”

She feels prepared for the next step in her education, attributing her confidence boost to NCSA’s REU-INCLUSION program. “I am overwhelmingly pleased with the program and recommend this to everyone. It helped me grow as a student, undergraduate researcher, and a future doctor,” says Connors. “I wouldn’t be able to have such a successful experience without the endless support and knowledge of my mentor, Dr. Zeynap Madak-Erdogan! She was always there when I needed her and taught me new skills every chance she had. She’s awesome, and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. I also want to thank Olena for being supportive and helpful.”

Madak-Erdogan will continue to work with Connors in the fall and has had great success as a faculty affiliate, researcher, and mentor at NCSA. She adds, “Haihley is an exceptional student, and I am so grateful that the REU-SPIN program enabled us to work together on this project over the summer. I am looking forward to interacting more with such talented students through this program.”

Connors is an Interdisciplinary Health Sciences major concentrating in Health Diversity at Illinois on a pre-med track and plans to graduate in May 2023.

NCSA International Research Intern Tuan Quang Mai worked alongside Illinois Professor and NCSA Senior Research Scientist Volodymyr Kindratenko and fellow interns William Eustis and George Lu on “Human Aggression Detection.” The project uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop a video-based model that accurately detects human actions related to falling and aggression.

“We aim to develop a model that can accurately detect violence, fighting action in a video,” says Mai. “A previous team, mentored by Dr. Kindratenko, developed this project’s first model and framework. Our goal was to improve overall performance by designing and enhancing models using new datasets. I read many related works to gain a better understanding of video classification. I implemented what I learned into our model and trained and tested it using video data provided by my teammates. Our model increased accuracy to 80%, a 10% increase from the previous model.”

Mai shares that he learned about the program as a teaching assistant in professor Minh Do’s “Intro to Machine Learning” class at VinUniversity in Vietnam. Do, an Illinois Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor and VinUni’s Vice-Provost, encouraged Quang to apply for the program to gain research experience. Before interning at NCSA, he had limited experience with computer vision and never worked with video data.

“This is my first global collaboration experience,” says Mai. “Previously, I’ve only studied and worked in groups with friends and peers in Vietnam. This project helped me expand my knowledge of the field. Working with the project’s video data and NCSA’s servers also improved my software engineering skills. We plan to continue our work by training our model with augmented data to explore new techniques like self-supervised learning.”

He is grateful for the experiences gained in NCSA’s International Research program and enjoyed working with an interdisciplinary team. “My team and mentor meet regularly three times a week to share updates, discuss problems, and what to do next. Our mentor monitored the project’s progress and gave us advice on how to fix various issues. The most meaningful advice that Dr. Kindratenko provided was when I struggled with connecting to the model. He suggested I use Tmux, which saved me a lot of time, allowing me to focus on other important aspects of the project.”

Kindratenko looks forward to working with Mai in the fall to continue the progress on this project. He says, “Tuan is an exceptionally strong student. His extensive experience with complex neural network models enables him to quickly grasp new concepts and implement solutions to complex problems. I have been very impressed by his ability to assemble and train large AI models. This helped the project evaluate several network models that we initially did not consider due to their complexity. He also worked very closely with other team members, using the code they developed and helping others set up their models. His work helped the team to improve previously obtained results.”

Mai is majoring in Electrical Engineering at VinUni and plans to graduate in May 2024.

This summer, NCSA SPIN Intern Shriya Srikanth worked alongside an interdisciplinary research team on the “Quantifying the Effectiveness of Scientific Documentaries” project. This work builds on research that uses data mining and natural language processing techniques to study the effects of issue-focused documentary films on various audiences by analyzing reviews and comments on streaming media sites. This project focuses on applying this research to analyze science-themed documentaries that use computational science research.

“I have always been interested in the practical applications of computer science and was looking for ways to expand my knowledge and experience,” says Srikanth. “NCSA SPIN stood out to me as a way to get directly involved in research. Having one-on-one interaction with mentors and being part of incredible research was the perfect combination I wanted. Since high school, I’ve been taking STEM classes, and often, I’ve always been one of few girls in those groups. I had a different experience with NCSA and SPIN. There were so many diverse people and perspectives, enabling me to learn so much.”

Srikanth shares that she cherished working with NCSA mentors AJ Christensen and Illinois professor Jill Naiman and the SPIN program’s professional development and networking opportunities. “I truly enjoyed working with my mentors,” says Srikanth. “They were incredibly supportive and understanding. Most importantly, I learned so much from them. Every week, we had lessons relevant to our research. I could not have learned that much from any class or other experience. The most important takeaway I received from this program is that you should learn from everyone, from peers to professors. I attended almost every professional development seminar, and I genuinely believe that it improved my skill set.”

Mentorship is an opportunity that allows experts to share knowledge and help people grow. Naiman, an NCSA faculty affiliate and one of Srikanth’s mentors, says, “Shriya was an absolute delight to work with! She has a keen intuition for not only programming and tech but how these computational methods can be applied to social issues to make scientific communication more effective.”

Srikanth is an Information Sciences and Finance major at Illinois on track to graduate in May 2024.

The three programs had very successful summer sessions with over 20 interns combined. Below is a complete list of students and mentors that received letters of recognition signed by NCSA Director Bill Gropp.

STUDENTS

REU-INCLUSION Fellow

  • Haihley Connors

NCSA International Research Fellows

  • Tuan Quang Mai
  • George Lu

SPIN Interns

  • Yihong Jian
  • Parth Tyagi
  • Mingxin Li
  • Chenhui Zhang
  • Devang Rai
  • Yufeng Liu
  • Haolin Luo
  • Minhao Jiang
  • Nikil Ravi
  • Churan He
  • Joseph Rejive
  • William Eustis
  • Pranshu Chaturvedi
  • Rauf Makharov
  • Ved Gautam Shah
NCSA OUTSTANDING MENTORS
  • Eliu Huerta
  • Bertram Ludaescher
  • Andrew J. Christensen
  • Jill Naiman
  • Zeynep Madak-Erdogan

ABOUT NCSA

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois 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 these resources to address research challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing many of the world’s industry giants for over 35 years by bringing industry, researchers and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

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