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Meet student researchers solving education, health, security and sustainability challenges

by | Nov 13, 2023 | Fulton Schools, Students

Arizona State University biomedical engineering junior Ava Claire Lariego (left) works with SungMin Sohn (right), an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, to develop a new material to improve MRI scans. As a student in the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, Lariego is one of many student researchers helping to solve real-world problems with hands-on research. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

This article is the second in a two-part series highlighting student researchers and faculty mentors presenting at the Fall 2023 Fulton Forge Student Research Expo on Friday, Nov. 17. Read part one. Learn more about the expo.

Visualizing data in virtual reality, developing an app for student success, improving MRIs with new materials, enhancing software security and reliability, and using drones to evaluate progress in reducing the impacts of urban heat islands with new pavement treatments are some of the ways Arizona State University students are addressing real-world challenges through hands-on research.

Undergraduate and graduate students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU have several opportunities to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom through research. By working on use-inspired investigations with Fulton Schools faculty mentors, students practice bold thinking to solve problems in the areas of data science, education, energy, health, security, semiconductor manufacturing and sustainability.

The Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, or FURI, and the Master’s Opportunity for Research in Engineering, or MORE, programs give participants valuable experiences in which they conceptualize ideas, develop plans and investigate their research questions over a semester.

Students participating in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, or GCSP, can apply for additional funding to conduct research through the GCSP research stipend program. Conducting research is part of a GCSP student’s rigorous competency requirements designed to prepare them to solve complex global societal challenges.

These programs enhance students’ independent thinking and problem-solving skills and prepare them to solve problems in their communities in innovative ways. The technical skills they gain beyond what they learn in their degree programs better prepare them for industry careers and pursuing advanced degrees.

Each semester, students who participate in FURI, MORE and the GCSP research stipend program are invited to present their findings at a poster session. Formerly known as the FURI Symposium, the Fulton Forge Student Research Expo is the culmination of the students’ hard work to forge meaningful research paths and connections to make an impact. Learn about four students who are participating in the Fall 2023 Fulton Forge Student Research Expo. Meet them and more than 70 other student investigators at the event, which is open to the public, on Friday, Nov. 17, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Student Pavilion on the ASU Tempe campus.

Computer science major Neha Balamurugan works in the Dreamscape Learn facilities on a FURI project to use virtual reality for better data visualization.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Neha Balamurugan

Computer science junior Neha Balamurugan is a GCSP student conducting research to help students better visualize data through virtual reality. She has participated in research since her first year at ASU and has gained new skills to apply to her passion for math and puzzles in impactful ways. Her current research, supported through the GCSP research stipend program, is advancing her work to address the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge theme of Joy of Living. Balamurugan has been working in this research area for several semesters with Robert LiKamWa, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Fulton Schools with a joint appointment in ASU’s School of Arts, Media and Engineering.

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What made you want to get involved in this program? Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

For my National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates project in the summer of 2022, I worked with Dr. LiKamWa on visualizing fluid dynamic models in virtual reality. This was my introduction to virtual reality, ASU’s Meteor Studio and Dr. LiKamWa. I really enjoyed working with virtual reality and saw its potential to revolutionize the way we communicate data. After the summer internship, I came back to Meteor to pick up and expand on my research.

What has been your most memorable experience as a student researcher in this program?

One of the most memorable moments was when I got to meet Walter Parkes, a producer, director and co-founder of Dreamscape. He visits the Dreamscape Learn pods we have for presentations and guest lectures. I was able to interact with him and talk about my research and it was really refreshing to meet one of the biggest minds in the industry. Holding a conversation with him made me realize how passionate he is about this work and how much potential the work I am involved in has for revolutionizing storytelling and education.

I truly enjoy the people-centric aspect of this line of research. I get to interact with a lot of people, and it is refreshing to be able to express my thoughts and get feedback.

How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

This experience helped me solidify my career goals in multiple ways. I’ve always been interested in intellectual exploration and have known that I wanted to go to grad school for that. However, it was this experience that has helped me narrow my focus and technical interest to the topics that I will be exploring in graduate school. Before my involvement with Meteor, I had not worked with virtual reality nor had I developed games, but now everything I work on, both within the lab and outside, involves gamification and mixed reality. I am thrilled for how impactful this technology is going to be in shaping our approach to information and it is exciting to have the opportunity to contribute toward this goal.

What is the best advice you’ve gotten from members of the Meteor Lab?

One of the doctoral students I closely work with has given me some of the most impactful career and personal advice I have ever received. When I was having a difficult time trying to decide if I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree myself, he carved time and elaborately explained his reasons for getting one. He introduced me to the power of creating a vision board. He taught me how to think and decide meaningfully. He told me that if an activity doesn’t align with my vision board, I should either reconsider the activity or my vision. I believe this is a powerful way to prioritize and be purposeful. He also constantly challenges me intellectually to think, speak and express myself in different ways. I find it hard to come by people who are purposeful, but I have met some of the best characters in my coworkers and mentors at Meteor. I am happy to be working with such high-achieving, motivated and altruistic people in my lab.

Why should other students get involved in this program?

I think all undergraduate students should consider getting involved in research. I believe research involvement is one of the best ways to cultivate critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills during a period when students do not have a set career trajectory. It is a practical outlet for applying one’s academic knowledge and exploring novel ideas. Working alongside experienced researchers offers mentorship and opportunities for intellectual growth that extend beyond the confines of traditional coursework. I have met some of the most dedicated and interesting people during my time at Meteor Studio.

In addition to technical involvement, interacting with researchers instills a sense of admiration and pushes them toward their own growth and curiosity. Participation in research projects facilitates networking, allowing students to connect with peers who share similar academic interests and can collaborate on meaningful projects. Finally, the GCSP program and the research stipend motivates students to pursue this path in a more sustainable manner with the financial support.

Learn about Neha Balamurugan’s Fall 2023 GCSP research stipend project.

Software engineering major Crislana Rafael completed a FURI research project while earning her degree online.

Photo courtesy of Crislana Rafael

Crislana Rafael

Crislana Rafael, a software engineering junior earning her degree online, is participating in FURI for a second semester. Her project focuses on designing a smartphone-based platform for the ASU Employment Assistance & Social Engagement, or EASE, program to support student success. The program, co-founded by Rafael’s faculty mentor, Deana Delp, an associate teaching professor of engineering programs, helps students with autism spectrum disorder transition into college, navigate earning their degrees and gain career readiness skills. She first became interested in engineering while earning her private pilot’s license and chose to study software engineering due to its collaborative nature and ubiquity in industry.

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What made you want to get involved in FURI and why did you choose the project you’re working on?

Ever since I got accepted to ASU, I’ve been wanting to get involved in undergraduate research. However, being an online student presented many challenges in that there were very few labs who were willing to take on online students. I scoured the research opportunities page and stumbled upon a project to create a digital platform for mobile devices that was open to online students. As someone who enjoys Android development as a hobby, I thought it was a great fit.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

It’s a great project to get a better sense of how to make tools and platforms more accessible, especially for those who are neurodivergent. I think it has the potential to help inform other universities running mentorship programs aimed at neurodiverse students and their needs.

What has been your most memorable experience as a student researcher? Did you have a particular “aha!” moment during your project?

Being able to present my research at the FURI Symposium during the Spring 2023 semester was quite memorable for me. I was not sure whether I needed to be in Tempe to present my work, but the FURI program was able to accommodate me to be present virtually. They set me up with Zoom and a camera, and I had several visitors ask me questions about my research.

Being one of the few online students participating in FURI has meant a lot, as I’m very grateful for the FURI program’s help to accommodate and welcome me. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to get online students on board, and I believe this can be an invaluable experience for them.

I was worried being an online student would make it hard to pursue FURI, but there are so many opportunities for researchers and labs to recruit these students. There just needs to be creative thinking in terms of accommodating conducting research in a virtual environment. I would like to see FURI continue increasing efforts in onboarding more ASU Online students into the program and getting that experience.

Crislana Rafael (pictured at left on the monitor) works with mentors Maria Dixon (pictured at right on the monitor) and Deana Delp (left).

Crislana Rafael (pictured at left on the monitor) works with mentors Maria Dixon (pictured at right on the monitor) and Deana Delp (left). Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Have there been any surprises in your research?

Through this research, I was surprised at how purposeful and deliberate I needed to be to word survey questions during the survey design phase of the project. I was also surprised at the high number of neurodiverse students who choose to major in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. I think because of that, there needs to be more resources and ways we can help this subgroup of students succeed in the classroom and to prepare for the workforce.

How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

I’m curious about exploring postgraduate education, so being involved in research gives me insight into whether research or academia is a right fit for me, either now or at a later point in my career. As an aspiring software engineer, I also think this helps me to think more about how to design products for users and to think more about the wants and needs of the user base in addition to getting additional mobile development experience.

What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

I’ve gotten really good advice from my faculty mentor indirectly during our research sessions, particularly in voicing my feedback. Being new to undergraduate research, I felt that it was my job to listen and take notes, but with Dr. Delp and Maria Dixon [a clinical professor in the ASU College of Health Solutions who is a co-developer of the EASE program with Delp], I felt like my opinions were equally valued during my project. I learned that I can provide value with my own insights as an undergraduate researcher.

Why should other students get involved in FURI?

I think FURI is a great opportunity to get involved at the undergraduate level. You gain a lot of skills and connections beyond the classroom that can help level up your resume. It also helps you to think more about your impact beyond the classroom, and you learn new skills and widen your scope being involved in the program.

Learn about Crislana Rafael’s Fall 2023 FURI project.

Biomedical engineering major Ava Claire Lariego (left) works with faculty mentor SungMin Sohn on a FURI research project to develop a new material to improve magnetic resonance imaging.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Ava Claire Lariego

Ava Claire Lariego, a biomedical engineering junior in the FURI program, is working with SungMin Sohn, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, to design a new material that can increase what doctors can see from MRI scans. Lariego has long been interested in a career in the medical industry, like many of her family members, and is combining her interests in the medical field and robotics to pursue biomedical engineering studies.

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What made you want to get involved in FURI? Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

I had never done engineering research before, and I wanted to develop my skills in literature review and experimental design outside of a class setting. I am also a biomedical engineering major with a concentration in biological devices, so all of my classes are more biology-focused. To widen my background and gain experience with biomedical devices, I joined the BiCS Lab to challenge myself and focus on a topic that was more technical compared to wet labs.

I am fascinated by the different ways technologies and processes can be improved to promote the health and safety of patients, and the MRI project I am working on addresses exactly that.

Have there been any surprises in your research?

The only circuitry-related background applicable to my research project was in my EEE 202 Circuits I course. I always see direct applications and concepts that I learned in that class; however, it was surprising to see what existed beyond a sophomore student’s curriculum and how ideas that I learned the basics about in class were actually applied in the real world in a more advanced way.

Personally, I was also surprised at how much influence simulation software has in engineering research. Many technical projects like mine involve spending a great deal of time being digitally simulated before actually being built or physically tested, which was a new mindset I had to adapt to.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

This research project has a direct impact on the level of detail of information a medical professional can receive to properly detect, diagnose and treat a condition. It offers a wearable solution to safely and effectively improve the performance of a widely used diagnostic tool. Increased data collection is positively correlated with an increase in customized treatment for individual patients and cases. Health care professionals with access to more detailed diagnostic information can provide patients with better, higher quality medical care.

How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

Through FURI, I am motivated to enrich my scientific knowledge, apply my academic education to real-world problems and get an early start in pursuing a research career. Not only did this experience teach me to interact with graduate and doctoral students in my field of work, but it also showed me that the research industry is much more extensive and in-depth than I could have originally guessed.

I learned how to read academic papers and apply my lecture notes to real-world applications. I learned about the processes scientists use to conduct literature review, solidify background knowledge and effectively apply the scientific method. Because of this, I can be a better experimenter and research paper writer, as my chosen career is heavily concentrated in research.

Why should other students get involved in this program?

Other students, especially those in STEM, should get involved in FURI because it is a great way to enter the world of engineering research when most undergraduate students do not receive this opportunity until they have graduated already with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. As an undergraduate student, it is known that you may not have yet learned about a certain topic, and FURI fosters a community of mentorship and teaching to help with that. It is an interactive learning process that helps you get your foot in the door for further research endeavors.

Learn about Ava Claire Lariego’s Fall 2023 FURI project.

Computer science major Vishal Juneja (left) works with faculty mentor Yan Shoshitaishvilli (right) on a project to improve the security and reliability of software by improving the Google error-detecting tool called AddressSanitizer.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Vishal Juneja

Computer science sophomore Vishal Juneja was drawn to working with the Laboratory of Security Engineering for Future Computing, known as SEFCOM, by his strong interest in cybersecurity and participation in Capture the Flag competitions in which teams compete to solve computer security challenges. As part of FURI, Juneja is working with Yan Shoshitaishvili, an associate professor of computer science, to improve a Google error-detecting tool called AddressSanitizer, or ASAN, to help make software more reliable and secure.

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What made you want to get involved in FURI? Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

I got involved in Professor Yan’s research because I was inspired by his enthusiasm for security and his vast knowledge in the field. After attending his educational security program,, I realized that I wanted to do research under his supervision. He motivated me to pursue research, and I am grateful for his guidance.

I chose to research ASAN because it is a widely used tool in the security industry, especially with fuzzers. Fuzzers are automated software tools that help security engineers find vulnerabilities in software by testing it with different input parameters. By understanding how ASAN works, I can help other security engineers use it more effectively to find vulnerabilities. I am also working to make ASAN more efficient by identifying and optimizing its components that can cause memory and time overhead costs.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

My project has the potential to make a significant impact on the world by making software more secure, reliable and robust. By understanding how ASAN works, we can develop better ways to use it to find and fix security vulnerabilities in software. This could help to reduce the number of cyberattacks, which could save billions of dollars each year and improve safety and security for individuals and businesses around the world. By identifying and optimizing the components of ASAN that cause memory and time overhead costs, we can make ASAN more efficient and easier to use. This could encourage more developers to use ASAN to test their software for security vulnerabilities, leading to more secure software being released into the wild. Moreover, my research could help to develop new tools and techniques for detecting and fixing memory errors. This could make software more reliable and robust, reducing the number of crashes and other software failures that can waste time and money for businesses and individuals.

How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

ASAN is a well-known tool developed by Google. This research opportunity is invaluable to me, as it allows me to improve my skills in the field of security and formally conduct research under the skilled and knowledgeable supervision of Professor Yan.

Additionally, this research is helping me to achieve my future career goals by giving me a chance to understand ASAN in-depth. I believe that hacking is the art of understanding something so well that you can modify its behavior in ways that were not originally intended. This research project is helping me to develop this skill by allowing me to dissect ASAN and learn how it works. I am also planning to propose changes in the future that will improve the efficiency of this software.

Why should other students get involved in FURI?

The Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative is highly recommended for students who want to do research and genuinely want to learn something. You can formally conduct research on a topic that you are interested in and share it with the world. It is an amazing opportunity for students who want to go outside of their comfort zone, learn on their own and make something new to benefit society. FURI can also help students to develop their skills in critical thinking, problem-solving and communication. These skills are highly valued by employers and graduate schools, so participating in FURI can give students a significant advantage in their future careers.

Learn about Vishal Juneja’s Fall 2023 FURI project.

Civil engineering major Othman Al-Alawi works on a FURI research project to harness drones with thermal cameras to help evaluate sustainable pavement treatments' impact on heat islands.

Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Othman Al-Alawi

Civil engineering senior Othman Al-Alawi conducted research in the FURI program over the summer with mentor Hasan Ozer, an associate professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering. Al-Alawi’s research harnessed drones with thermal cameras to help evaluate sustainable pavement treatments’ impact on urban heat islands. His work has contributed to a research paper on which he is a co-author with Ozer’s doctoral students. The paper, “Thermal Profiling of Asphalt Pavement Construction using Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV),” was accepted to be presented at a major event hosted by the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., and is under consideration for publication in the organization’s peer-reviewed research journal.

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What made you want to get involved in FURI? 

I decided to get involved in this program primarily because of my strong interest in gaining research experience, particularly within my field as a civil engineering student. The prospect of contributing to cutting-edge research and advancing my knowledge in this domain was highly appealing to me.

What was it like participating in FURI during the summer semester?

Participating in FURI over the summer was a unique experience. It was definitely a mix of fun and challenges. During the summer, I didn’t have any classes or academic commitments, which provided me with the perfect opportunity to fully immerse myself in research. Without the need to complete coursework, I could dedicate more time and energy to delve into FURI and apply the knowledge and skills I had gained from my classes directly to my research projects.

However, it was also quite demanding because I was simultaneously engaged in a full-time internship alongside my research commitments. Balancing both responsibilities required careful time management and dedication. There were times when it got a bit overwhelming, but the learning experience and the chance to apply classroom knowledge to practical situations made it all worthwhile. Overall, participating in FURI over the summer was a valuable and enriching experience.

Why did you choose the project you’re working on?

I made a conscious decision to align my project with my personal interests and career aspirations. I have always been fascinated by transportation infrastructure and the materials used in pavements for roads. This topic resonated with me on a deep level, and I saw it as an opportunity to delve into an area of civil engineering that I’m truly passionate about.

Furthermore, my commitment to the sustainable aspect of civil engineering played a significant role in my choice. I believe in the importance of environmentally responsible practices in infrastructure development, and this project allowed me to explore sustainable solutions within the realm of transportation and pavement materials.

How will your engineering research project impact the world?

My engineering research project is poised to make a substantial global impact through cost reduction, timely damage detection, enhanced infrastructure longevity, safety advancements, environmental responsibility and economic efficiency.

The research findings offer cities and municipalities an opportunity to significantly reduce their expenditure on recurrent road and parking pavement repairs. This financial relief is of paramount importance, especially in an era in which fiscal prudence is crucial for governments and local authorities.

Through the utilization of data derived from my research, we have established an effective system for promptly identifying damage in newly constructed pavements. This capability is instrumental in enabling immediate repairs before these issues worsen and compromise road safety and usability.

By minimizing the need for frequent and extensive repairs, my research promotes the durability of road and parking pavements. This, in turn, extends the life span of critical infrastructure, benefiting communities and economies alike.

The rapid identification and resolution of pavement damage contributes to safer road networks. This directly reduces the risk of accidents and injuries for all road users, making transportation systems safer and more reliable.

The sustainable practices advocated for in my research — reducing the frequency of construction and repair work — align with environmental conservation objectives. This aids in curbing the environmental impact typically associated with infrastructure projects, such as resource consumption and emissions.

The efficiency gains from optimized infrastructure maintenance made possible by this research enhance the economic health of cities. Effective allocation of resources not only benefits taxpayers but also fosters overall economic stability.

How do you see this experience helping with your career or advanced degree goals?

Participating in this experience has been instrumental in shaping and advancing my career and advanced degree goals in several ways.

This opportunity provided me with invaluable real-world insight into the field. It allowed me to see the practical application of the concepts and theories I’ve learned in my academic studies. This firsthand experience has deepened my understanding of how the field operates beyond the classroom.

As a researcher, I’ve acquired essential skills that are directly transferable to my career and advanced degree pursuits. These include skills in data collection, analysis and interpretation, as well as problem-solving and critical thinking. These skills are not only relevant to my current research but also to future projects and endeavors in my field.

This experience has also added depth and credibility to my resume. It demonstrates my commitment to practical, hands-on learning and research, which can be a distinguishing factor when applying for advanced degree programs or job opportunities in the future.

What is the best advice you’ve gotten from your faculty mentor?

My mentor emphasized the importance of embracing mistakes as valuable learning opportunities. Instead of fearing or avoiding them, I was encouraged to analyze my errors, understand the root causes and use this knowledge to improve and grow. This advice underscores the idea that setbacks and failures are not hindrances but rather steppingstones toward personal and professional development.

Another crucial piece of advice was “always ask if you don’t know,” which is the importance of seeking guidance and clarification when faced with uncertainty. I was encouraged to recognize that it’s perfectly acceptable to admit when I don’t have all the answers and to reach out for help or information.

Why should other students get involved in this program?

FURI provides an open and welcoming platform for students to explore their interests and passions. It allows them to pursue projects and topics that genuinely resonate with their academic and career aspirations. This level of freedom can be incredibly motivating and fulfilling.

It also offers students the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience in their chosen field. It’s an environment in which theoretical knowledge from the classroom can be applied in practical, real-world scenarios. This experience is instrumental in bridging the gap between academic learning and practical application.

Learn more about Othman Al-Alawi’s Summer 2023 FURI project.

About The Author

Monique Clement

Monique Clement is a lead communications specialist for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She earned her BA in journalism from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. For seven years before joining the Fulton Schools communications team, she worked as an editor and journalist in engineering trade media covering the embedded systems industry. Media contact: [email protected] | 480-727-1958 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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