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A New ‘SPIN’ on Research

A picture of SPIN students at their exhibit table during Engineering Open House

Recent SPIN students explain their work to those attending the 2023 UIUC Engineering Open House.

A college education takes many forms, and often some of the most impactful education happens in informal settings outside the classroom.

“I was always interested in exploring research opportunities,” said Foziea Garada, a computer science major who just completed her sophomore year. “Even more than that, I wanted to be part of something bigger than just myself.”

Garada found what she was looking for through an NCSA program called Students Pushing Innovation or SPIN. Launched in 2012, SPIN gives undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign the chance to work with NCSA staff on research and development projects in supercomputing, data analytics, visualization, and more. 

Garada applied for the program just before the start of her freshman year. Along with her full academic load, she has spent the last two years as a SPIN intern working on a project she describes as “close to my heart,” the Illinois STEM Nobel Project, designed to introduce students from under-resourced urban and rural high schools to the University of Illinois and stimulate their interests in STEM fields, including computer science and medicine. The project is one of more than 25 research projects that SPIN students currently have their hands in. Twenty NCSA staff and faculty members serve as mentors to the students, providing guidance and support as they learn by doing, said Olena Kindratenko, the NCSA senior research coordinator who leads SPIN.

“This is an opportunity for our staff to be involved in the educational mission of the university,” said Kindratenko. Students benefit from working with mentors and research groups that include postdocs and graduate students. They learn about problem-solving, the benefits and challenges of working in teams, and make long-lasting connections with faculty and staff who help them with career advice and applying for jobs, internships and graduate programs. But SPIN is not a one-way street, according to Kindratenko. NCSA and its professional research staff also benefit.

They like to explore and they push the boundaries. They have ideas and the freedom to test them to see if they work. We count on their contributions; they are equal contributors to these projects. 

Olena Kindratenko, NCSA senior research coordinator 

SPIN has made its mark within the university too. At the 2023 Engineering Open House, SPIN took first place for outstanding undergraduate research. The SPIN booth at the open house highlighted a variety of research projects, including research in natural language processing, machine learning to organize astrophysical data, optical character recognition to improve scanning of older documents, multiscale modeling of cell membranes and the aforementioned Nobel Project, led by Ruby Mendenhall, PhD, associate professor of African American studies in the department of sociology.

SPIN students with their 2023 First place Engineering Open House award
SPIN students with their 2023 first place Engineering Open House award

SPIN students were also key players in NCSA’s first student research conference, held on April 13 with more than 100 students in attendance as well as NCSA Industry Partners. “These students and the experiences they have are important to us,” said Kindratenko. “We had a great poster session, oral presentations, and the students were able to network with our Industry Partners.”

Xiaojun (Alison) Jia, another SPIN student with two years of experience under her belt, said she first applied for the program because of NCSA’s reputation and to gain experience that would look good on her resume. She said she’s achieved that and gained much more.

“One of the most important things that I learned is passion creates a positive feedback loop,” she said. “SPIN provides me with an environment to try new ideas, and provides excellent mentors and teammates to help me if I get stuck. The positive feedback loop is: Passion and curiosity lead to creativity, creativity leads to experiments, experiments lead to informative results, and those results lead to more passion and curiosity.”

Like Garada, Jia has been able to explore a field of great interest, in her case, machine learning. A project called “System of Systems:” Solutions for Commercial Field-Level Quantification of Soil Organic Carbon and Nitrous Oxide Emission for Scalable Applications (SYMFONI) allows her to explore how machine learning or deep learning models can be used to predict the concentration of nitrogen in corn crops. She uses Python to write the ML system’s neural networks, optimize those networks, and help other teammates label photos to prepare the experiment’s dataset. The success of her work has led to excitement and a realization that her knowledge of machine learning could help the agricultural sector reduce costs and better predict the future.

“I expected to apply my machine learning knowledge in practice and test if machine learning is really what I want to do in the future,” said Jia. “Because you never know if what you love is something you imagined rather than real.”

SPIN internships are for undergraduates only and although students must maintain good academic standing, the program has no specific requirements. During the academic year, the students work five hours each week on research projects and present lightening talks on their work throughout the year. Summer SPIN students work 20 hours a week for eight weeks. Although many students have STEM-related majors, such as computer science and information science, many also come from health sciences fields and some are students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, art and design, and other fields.

Members of the SPIN program including students, mentors and SPIN coordinator, Olena Kindratenko
Members of the SPIN program including students, mentors and SPIN coordinator, Olena Kindratenko

This summer, 2023 SPIN student Mit Kotak is continuing his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Other SPIN grads have gone on to pursue graduate school opportunities and jobs in industry. 

“The experience they get here is applicable to their future plans, whether that’s going to grad school or working in industry,” said Kindratenko. She added that the program is always looking for new research projects and new mentors. Attracting students from diverse fields of interest and from diverse ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds is also key to SPIN’s future success, Kindratenko said. The Nobel Project, which seeks to broaden participation in STEM fields among targeted groups of students in Chicago, Champaign-Urbana and rural Pembroke Township, is one project that could lead to a pipeline of diverse future SPIN students and bring new talent to STEM and biomedical fields.

The SPIN and Nobel Project missions hit home with Garada, who as a SPIN intern has worked with high school students on data analytics and Geographic Information Science projects.

“In my honors classes especially, I can often be one of only a few females,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to reach people from marginally represented groups and why this project means so much to me. You can feel inspired when you see someone like yourself doing cool stuff.”

At the end of the year, NCSA recognizes SPIN interns and mentors for their significant contributions and outstanding mentorship. Students receive a recognition letter signed by NCSA Director Bill Gropp for their outstanding work during the academic year. Outstanding mentors receive a SPIN Outstanding Mentor certificate. Five SPIN students and two mentors were recognized  for the 2022-2023 academic year:

SPIN interns:

Pooja Tetali, senior, statistics and computer science
Matthew Pianfetti, sophomore, electrical and electronics engineering
Xiaojun Jia, sophomore, computer science, mathematics and statistics
Zhiju Lu, sophomore, computer science and astronomy 
Haozhen Zheng, sophomore, mathematics and computer science


Roland Haas, NCSA senior research programmer 
Antonios Tsokaros, assistant research professor, department of physics

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