RIT has a depth of experience in a variety of other established and emerging research areas, including astrophysics, microsystems, and modeling and simulation.
by: William Dube November 2011
Research conducted by RIT students Barbara Spieker, Cory Ilo, Danielle Burnash, and Delilah Bowman exemplifies the increasingly diverse, relevant, and cutting-edge work being undertaken on campus. It also showcases the growing impact undergraduates are having on RIT's research portfolio.
These four students, with widely divergent interests and backgrounds, are tackling significant problems that will have a major societal effect well beyond RIT. Their research includes analyzing gene expression in echinoderms, creating novel 3D gesture control technologies, studying the incidence of abuse in the deaf community, and advancing building security and control systems.
Their efforts illustrate how the university's research operations continue to expand and the significant opportunity the student body has to participate in the effort.
"RIT students have challenged their professors to devise research projects that go above and beyond the university's toughest courses," notes Darren Narayan, professor of mathematical sciences and director of undergraduate research for RIT's College of Science. "The result has been the creation of an exciting and dynamic environment that is moving RIT toward being the first university synonymous with undergraduate research."
Like the relationship between humans and apes, the Esmark serpent star and the spiny brittle star are genetically very similar animals. Both are brittle stars, similar to a starfish, are members of the echinoderm phylum, and evolved from the same common ancestor. However, we still know very little about how the species diverged from each other approximately 450 million years ago and the impact different genes had on that divergence.
Barbara Spiecker was part of a team of scientists, led by Hyla Sweet, an associate professor of biological sciences, that is attempting to solve this puzzle through the use of comparative gene expression and function.
"By comparing how similar genes function differently in the two species we can learn more about how development of serpent stars and spiny brittle stars evolved to lead to the animals we now have today," says Spiecker, a 2011 biology graduate who spent four years working in Sweet's lab.
Sweet received a National Science Foundation grant to fund undergraduate research fellowships and is committed to including her students in all aspects of the project, including presenting their research at conferences and writing manuscripts.
"Barbara and the other students on our team are taking part in all of the experiments and analysis involved. We really try to balance the dual goals of basic research and high-quality educational experiences," she adds.
Spiecker used Rapid Amplification of cDNA Ends (RACE), a technique used to isolate the RNA strands that code the proteins that control central developmental events in each species. Through an analysis of the similarities and differences in expression and function of these RNAs, the team hopes to discover the reasons underlying the differences seen in species development.
Sweet hopes the research will ultimately enhance general knowledge of echinoderm development and how changes in embryonic gene expression can be used to better understand evolution.
The creation and use of 3D images is hampered in part by the traditional keyboard and mouse interface, which was designed for two-dimensional environments. Through the development of new software platforms, an RIT team, which includes Cory Ilo, a second-year computer engineering major, is seeking to create immersive, 3D interfaces that model the futuristic worlds depicted in films such as Minority Report.
"When working in 3D, users want to view and interact with the simulations in a simple and natural way that allows for easy manipulation and analysis," notes Hans-Peter Bischof, professor of computer science and director of RIT's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) center in Computer Science. "Through our REU center, our student teams have developed and deployed a software package that captures the user's motions and uses them to control the camera positions utilized by a 3D visualization system."
The program, called NuWii, is a 3D user interface that utilizes Nintendo Wii remotes as infrared tracking cameras to detect movements by the user and allow for virtual manipulation of 3D images. Ilo was part of a team, which also included management information systems major Brandon Colli and computer science student D'artist Vaughn, that developed a mobile version of the program that could be used on an iPad.
"The project not only involves significant programming work but also mathematical modeling of various human gestures, research into how people perceive computer-generated scenes, and analysis of how individuals interact with those scenes and the computers that display them," Ilo says.
NuWii is already being used by astrophysics researchers to view and manipulate three-dimensional visualizations of black hole collisions. The team is also investigating the creation of an iPad version of the application, which will utilize the device's motion and orientation sensors to control a virtual camera within a 3D scene. Ilo argues the technology could some day assist doctors in conducting remote surgeries or be used by film directors to create 3D movies.
The REU is funded through the National Science Foundation and is one of three such centers on campus. The other two are located in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and the School of Mathematical Sciences.
Child abuse and maltreatment are an ongoing social and public policy issue, particularly in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community where communication barriers can often reduce options for assessment and intervention.
Danielle Burnash, in collaboration with Gail Rothman-Marshall, associate professor of liberal studies at NTID, and Lindsay Schenkel, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and the lead investigator on the project, conducted one of the first studies to compare childhood maltreatment and abuse between deaf and hearing children.
The results indicate that the incidence of maltreatment, including neglect and physical and sexual abuse, is more than 25% higher among deaf and hard-of-hearing children than among hearing kids. The research also shows a direct correlation between childhood maltreatment and higher rates of negative cognition, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder in adulthood.
"By providing clear data on the high rate of childhood maltreatment in the deaf community we hope to shine a light on the issue and provide mental health professionals with the necessary data to better treat both children and adults suffering from mental and behavioral disorders," notes Burnash, a 2011 graduate in psychology who conducted the research as part of her undergraduate thesis.
The findings were unveiled at the annual meeting of the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, where Burnash was the only undergraduate to present. A story on the study appeared in the Associated Press and the team has been contacted by the National Institute on Deafness and other Communications Disorders about utilizing the results in future studies. Schenkel is also developing a broader project, in collaboration with Marc Marshark, director of the Center for Education Research Partnerships at NTID, to create a more precise method for measuring maltreatment among both hearing and deaf populations.
The work was funded in part through the McNair Scholars program, a U.S. Department of Education initiative designed to promote advanced scholarship by first-generation and minority college students. Burnash is currently working toward a master's degree in school and community counseling at the University of Rochester.
What if there were a way to monitor occupancy in specific rooms of a building and adjust the heat or air conditioning automatically? Or what if the Department of Motor Vehicles could alert you when there was no line?
Delilah Bowman, a second-year packaging science major, says that the building sensor technology to accomplish these types of tasks already exists.
"The camera and sensor systems that are part of most modern buildings to monitor security and fire safety could also be used to analyze movements within a building or conduct pattern recognition on individuals," she adds. "This data could be used for all manner of operations such as noting when a person has entered or left a room and adjusting the heating controls accordingly to reduce overall energy use."
Bowman worked with Robert Garrick, associate professor of mechanical engineering technology, to investigate the modification of building security and building control system packages for use in occupancy monitoring. The project is a partnership between RIT, Lenel a business of UTC Fire & Security, which is a unit of United Technologies Corp.-and Automated Logic, part of Carrier Corp. It sought to integrate off-the-shelf security and building control systems to monitor occupancy via video analytics and send notifications to the building control system if certain criteria were met.
"It included programming and hardware design as well as discussions with UTC designers about system specifications and potential redesign options," says Bowman, who participated in the project through the National Science Foundation's Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation in research. "The ultimate goal was to provide data on how such a system could be set up as well as the quality of the results produced."
Based on the initial work, Garrick is seeking to apply the modified system for use on campus. This could include the analysis of traffic flow in the Student Financial Services area of the University Services Center to improve human comfort and work flow.
All four students sought to join research teams to move beyond the classroom and work on real problems. While the projects have often been challenging, knowing they are contributing to discovery that will have a positive impact provides significant incentive.
"Working in the REU center provided a crash course in how actual software development is conducted, knowledge I never could have gained in a classroom or in most internship opportunities," says Ilo.
From a broader perspective, these experiences also illustrate how research opportunities can enhance both the educational and scholarship mission of the university.
"My own research goals have been significantly enhanced through the support of student teams, leading to results that will advance what we know about developmental biology," adds Sweet. "And as a teacher, it has been amazing to see individuals transformed from students to working scientists who will ultimately make their own discoveries."