Academics Health and Medicine

Students gain valuable research experience

Computer savvy students from colleges around the country spent the summer with science professors across the university to bolster their research capabilities.
Victor Jann, research, Vance Lemmon, paralysis, University of Miami, UM

Computer science fellow Victor Jann, who spent 10 weeks at UM this summer, explains to neuroscience professor Vance Lemmon how he trained a machine learning algorithm to recognize a mouse's paw and fingers while the mouse was picking up a small food pellet. Photo courtesy of Rob Camarena/Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

New technology that rapidly sifts through video to identify if paralyzed mice are able to regain movement with experimental drugs. A computer program able to simulate chemical reactions that could help eliminate harmful solvents from polluting the earth.

These are just two projects completed by students in the computer science undergraduate research program wrapping up this week at the University of Miami. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the research experience for undergraduates, or REU program, provided 10-week grants for college students from across the country to come study with University of Miami professors and help them advance their research goals.

Now in its third year, the program allows UM faculty from science disciplines to harness the knowledge of tech-savvy students, while also offering the students a chance to explore one specific area of science before graduate school, said REU coordinator and computer science professor Burt Rosenberg.

“We get students from all over and they bring unique elements to the program because they can go on to influence their colleagues and we are influenced as well,” Rosenberg said. “This benefits UM by reinforcing its national prominence as a research institution with important relationships across the United States.”

Although the students are not required to be computer science majors, many of them have a technical understanding and then must take a weeklong boot camp at the start of the summer program. They earn a stipend for their work, and are provided on-campus housing and a food allowance as part of the grant, Rosenberg said.

Faculty at UM are glad to get the extra support. Vance Lemmon, the Walter G. Ross distinguished chair in developmental neuroscience at the Miller School of Medicine, works to find ways that people who have spinal cord injuries may regain movement. Lemmon has two undergraduate research fellows this summer, Juliana Hemela and Victor Jann. In the past few weeks, Jann developed an artificial intelligence program to analyze videos of paralyzed mice and determine whether they are regaining motion in their paws and forearms.

“This speeds up our analysis and gives us a really important way to assess whether the treatments we are doing will be able to help people with spinal cord injury,” Lemmon said.

Jann came to UM from the University of California-Berkeley, where he is a computer science major. Although he has always been interested in computers, Jann said he enjoyed applying his technology skills to benefit a science lab. Lemmon said he will continue to use Jann’s program to expedite his research so that later on, treatments can hopefully be tested in humans.

“This has allowed me to see the real-world applications of computer science and data science,” Jann said. “I also saw what it was like to do research in a neuroscience lab. This is something I may be interested in.”

Acevedo lab
Azhar Moihdeen, associate professor of chemistry Orlando Acevedo and Courtney Sever.

Courtney Sever from Florida State University and Azhar Moihdeen, from Georgia Institute of Technology, helped to bolster the research done by Orlando Acevedo, associate professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences. Acevedo, a computational chemist, is working to create more environmentally-safe solvents.

Solvents are liquids essential in the creation of countless everyday products, including plastics and medicines. Unfortunately, many of them can be harmful or toxic to both researchers and the earth, Acevedo said. To avoid creating more waste, Acevedo is working on computer simulations of chemical experiments that contain solvents.

“Designing new and environmentally-friendly solvents is our goal and we are using computers to aid us in their discovery,” Acevedo said.

This summer Sever and Moihdeen edged Acevedo closer to developing programs to simulate chemical reactions that would be immensely useful for chemists and pharmaceutical companies.

“We are teaching computers chemistry with the hope that they can offer insight into the fundamentals of chemical reactivity,” Acevedo said.

Moihdeen, a computer engineering major, said working in Acevedo’s lab has helped him apply computing skills he had only learned about in theory before.

“While prior classes helped me learn programming languages, this summer experience at UM gave me the opportunity to apply my knowledge to real-world problems,” he said. “Overall it’s been a great experience.”