CUbiC opens doors to award-winning high school researcher
Undergraduate research, with more than a thousand students participating, is booming in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. But, what about opportunities for high schoolers who want to get a jumpstart on conducting research?
Shreya Venkatesh, a senior at BASIS Scottsdale, is taking full advantage of an opportunity to get involved as a high school student researcher in the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) — and winning prestigious awards in the process.
When she’s not in school, competing in archery or perfecting an Indian classical dance performance, Venkatesh tackles computer science projects for the benefit of a CUbiC research team.
Venkatesh joined the Center in October 2014 to assist with conducting a research study. Her research interests surround assistive technologies, perfectly aligning with CUbiC’s role as an interdisciplinary research center focused on cutting edge research in human-centered computing with assistive, rehabilitative and healthcare applications.
Alleviating Parkinson’s Disease symptom
Under the mentorship of Troy McDaniel, an assistant research professor, and Arash Tadayon, a computer science doctoral student and co-founder of Dezapp, she is helping to create a wearable device to help individuals with Parkinson’s Disease manage a common symptom known as Freezing of Gait.
This symptom manifests itself in an individual’s sudden inability to continue their gait (walking stride).
“It is an episodic phenomenon that causes an individual’s feet to freeze up and feel like they’re glued to the floor,” says Tadayon.
Unfortunately, this symptom often occurs during high stress or timed tasks, for example, when walking in a crosswalk.
“Our work looks to predict when these episodes are going to occur and bring the individual’s attention to it,” says Tadayon.
If the user is aware of the freeze before it occurs, warning them to take longer steps can often help prevent the full freeze from happening.
Auditory and visual cues have been previously used to guide the user to take longer steps, but the CUbiC team’s approach is exploring the field of haptics, specifically sensory vibrations as a feedback tool.
They are creating a device that can be worn on the foot to collect and send out these sensory signals.
“It identifies the earliest onset of Freeze of Gait then helps the wearer to pick up their pace by direction the user’s attention to their gait,” describes Venkatesh.
When the project started, Venkatesh mostly assisted with literature reviews, but she is now actively involved in developing the device’s software, including creating the algorithms, known as vibrotactile patterns, which send specific cues to the patient.
The team is currently working on designing and programming the patterns and will soon be planning another user study to test their effectiveness.
This project aligns with CUbiC’s larger aims to meet the needs and enrich the lives of physically challenged individuals by empowering them with ubiquitous and pervasive computing technologies.
“Using something artificial like technology to influence something as natural as human illness is fascinating,” says Venkatesh, who has enjoyed seeing up close the way technology can be employed to help improve human health.
Awards include White House nod
Venkatesh has earned a couple of notable awards since she began working with CUbiC.
She received a Young Scientist of Arizona Award from Phoenix Comicon at the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair (AzSEF) — a state-wide science fair competition — for her research in the Freezing of Gait events in April 2016. She was later invited to present a talk on this research area at a Phoenix Comicon panel in June 2016.
She also earned an Outstanding Young Female Scientist in Systems Software award from the Association for Women in Science at AzSEF in 2016.
Last year, as a junior, Venkatesh earned recognition from President Barack Obama for an outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship. She received an unexpected letter from the president commending her for her pursuit of raising environmental awareness in cultivating clean energy.
The research that earned this recognition was on a plant known as Jatropha. She discovered this unique plant while reading her grandfather’s research paper on entomology.
Native to North America, Jatropha’s seeds can be used to produce clean biodiesels.
In her research, Venkatesh performed an economic analysis of the comparative fuel efficiency of Jatropha biodiesel with algal biofuel production. She took the initiative to contact local communities and the EPA, creating awareness about the importance of cultivating Jatropha plantations within the United States.
“I wrote a letter to the EPA along with my analysis asking them to start Jatropha plantations in Arizona,” says Venkatesh.
And she’s happy to report that her biodiesel initiatives, advanced and supported by environmental researchers, have been evaluated as a potential cultivation crop for the Arizona desert climate with more progress and cultivation to come in future years.
As a United Nations Environment Programme Tunza member, Venkatesh presented her Jatropha project and earned a silver medal at the International Environmental Global Environmental Issues (GENIUS) Science Olympiad in New York City, an international high school project competition focused on environmental issues. Her project was among more than a thousand projects submitted from 69 countries.
Using computer science for social good
Venkatesh’s passion for computer science also extends outside of the research lab.
Since 2014, she has sought opportunities to introduce non-native English speakers and refugees throughout Scottsdale to coding. In March, she began volunteering for the Refugee Code Academy as a student ambassador. In this role she teaches basic coding to students and refugees, showing them the fun side of coding as well as its potential to solve many real-world problems.
Venkatesh also started a Google CS First club at her school, which introduces fourth through sixth graders to computer science concepts by creating fun applications and games.
Venkatesh’s passion for computer science is supported by her parents who both work in the information technology sector. Her mother, Usha Jagannathan, is a lecturer in the Polytechnic School, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.
Speaking of the importance of promoting STEM fields to children and young adults, Jagannathan says, “Helping young people have fun in learning new skills will propel them through college and that will have a positive impact across generations.”
“Shreya’s efforts in working with the CUbiC team and also her initiatives taken for refugee communities to inculcate programming skills really makes me feel proud and happy as students like her are transforming lives,” says Jagannathan.
Investing in next generation researchers
For Venkatesh, one of the most rewarding aspects of working with CUbiC has been sharing her passion for math and science research with others.
She says she was the only fifth grader from her school to compete in the AzSEF science fair, but as she’s gotten older her early interest in math and science has allowed her to jumpstart strong connections in “a community that has the same interests as me.”
Ready to attend college next fall, Venkatesh is in the process of sending in college applications. She was quick to share that the first application she submitted was to ASU’s Barrett, the Honors College. She is also applying to several STEM-focused schools on the East Coast.
She is interested in biomedical or electrical engineering and computer science, but is also open to exploring other majors. Though she says wherever she chooses to go must offer “a strong research program connecting professors and students.”
She is grateful that ASU offers this emphasis and chooses to open its doors to young researchers.
“CUbiC is full of amazing faculty and student researchers — the fact that they want to extend their offerings to high school students shows their commitment to investing in scientific research.
McDaniel echoes this statement saying, “CUbiC engages high school students to tap the talent of these aspiring individuals with opportunities to flourish and make an impact.”
“It means everything to see experts in their field take an interest in inspiring a high school student,” says Venkatesh.
Rose Serago, [email protected]
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering