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Unique NSF-funded collaborative research underway at UW-Eau Claire


Photo caption: The 2022 cohort of a three-year supercomputing research grant, are, from left (sitting) Tyler Pham, Alyse Tainter and Fatima Orpineda. Standing, from left, are Jacob Jensen, Joshua Rusnak, Olesya Shelomova, Felicia Kedrowski, Hengrui Jia and Jessica Ryun. Not pictured: Devin Sobottka. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in February announced a three-year grant awarded by the National Science Foundation to support opportunities for students to combine high-performance computing with multidisciplinary undergraduate research.

The $385,762 grant will allow UW-Eau Claire to host 10 undergraduate students for 10-week collaborative research programs each summer from 2022-24. 

The first cohort of undergraduates has been conducting innovative, collaborative and interdisciplinary computational research studies since early June under the mentorship of 10 Blugold faculty members in a range of subject areas. All projects and mentors can be seen on the REU website.

Dr. Rahul Gomes, assistant professor of computer science and a principal investigator on the grant, is pleased with the progress made in this initial series of projects. Gomes has been thrilled to witness visiting students alongside Blugolds harnessing the computational power of the Blugold Center for High-Performance Computing, a facility made possible in 2020 through a university partnership with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). 

“The students have made significant progress and grown both as a team and independent scholars,” Gomes says. “In interdisciplinary research programs like this, there is a need to have multiple teams, each solving a specific problem.

“It didn’t take long for the students to find their interest and settle with a group. For example, the GIS team led by Dr. Papia Rozario have become experts in analyzing and processing hyperspectral remotely sensed data. The deep learning team I have been working with is doing a fantastic job with computational analysis.”  

Open to student applicants from any two- or four-year institution, this first research cohort includes:

  • Jacob Jenson, computer science major from Minot State University.
  • Hengrui Jia, computer science major from Macalester College.
  • Felicia Kedrowski, dual-degree engineering major at UW-Eau Claire and University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
  • Fatima Orpineda, computer science major from the University of Texas at El Paso.
  • Tyler Pham, computer science major from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
  • Joshua Rusnak, chemistry major from UW-Stout.
  • Jessica Ryun, physics major from UW-Stevens Point.
  • Olesya Shelomova, liberal arts science major at Chippewa Valley Technical College.
  • Devin Sobottka, chemistry major from UW-Eau Claire.
  • Alyse Tainter, psychology major from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

“Our goals for these research students were to successfully collaborate across disciplines, learn to review and apply relevant scholarly publications and to meaningfully process big data using the HPC infrastructure,” Rozario, a lecturer in geography and anthropology, says. “These students have met the goals with flying colors. They’ve also mastered team meetings and weekly progress reports, skills essential in graduate-level research.”

Students in supercomputing lab

REU students (from left) Devin Sobottka, Alyse Tainter and Joshua Rusnak work in the computational chemistry lab with Blugold peer mentors Molly Mohr and Sydney Schroeder. (Contributed photo)

Dr. Sudeep Bhattacharyay, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is co-principal investigator on the REU grant, working with student researchers investigating oxidation-reduction processes involving enzymes.

“During the 10-week REU program, students studied large molecules and their interactions by performing molecular simulations on the Blugold supercomputers,” Bhattacharyay says. 

“One of the computational studies involved making models and performing dynamic simulations of crowders and enzyme molecules. The students were amazed to witness how supercomputers transform the massive amount of information present in a simple text file into the three-dimensional molecular structure of bonded atoms and enable them to compare drug-target binding energy values.” 

Unique student research experience

The national REU program is one of a kind, giving students across multiple academic fields the chance to spend time visiting a different campus to collaborate with students and faculty. Gomes explains that UW-Eau Claire provides additional elements unmatched by other regional comprehensive institutions, elements that will set this 2022 UW-Eau Claire resident cohort apart in the scheme of overall experience and outcomes.

“What gives us the edge and sets us apart is our dedicated faculty mentors and access to exceptional hardware infrastructure, combined with the opportunities to explore research aimed at direct patient outcomes through our research agreement with Mayo Clinic Health System in Northwest Wisconsin,” Gomes says.

Alyse Tainter will be a transfer student enrolled at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities to complete a bachelor’s degree after earning her associate degree at Chippewa Valley Technical College. Her summer project with Dr. Thao Yang, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, involved research into the body’s production of uric acid, findings that would assist in drug design.

“I’m an Eau Claire native, so this summer opportunity was a good fit for me,” Tainter says. “As a psychology major, I loved that this project allowed me to explore disciplines that interest me but I don’t often get to study. Computational-based work is something I had never even thought about, let alone done, but I’ve truly enjoyed it.

“Looking toward graduate school, I’m now more confident in my ability to ‘hold my own’ and not be embarrassed to ask for clarification on topics that I don’t quite fully grasp. This program gave me experiences that I won’t be able to replicate in a classroom.”

For Felicia Kedrowski, a Blugold dual-degree engineering transfer student from UW-Stevens Point, an REU project researching next-generation materials for lithium-ion batteries has both opened doors to new academic passions and solidified her career goals as an engineer.

“I am majoring in physics and aerospace engineering, in my sophomore year of completing the physics-engineering dual-degree program with UW-Eau Claire and University of Minnesota Twin Cities,” Kedrowski says.

“I knew that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. This program allowed me to discover more options in the STEM field and gives me experience with both computer science and material science, to which I’ve had limited exposure.

“I am very thankful for this experience because it allowed me to grow my independence as a researcher and thoroughly understand my purpose, while connecting with other students also passionate about computer science.”

While the majority of REU participants have expressed an increased interest in research and computational studies, for some, it can help to narrow their future choices by eliminating this type of intensive research as a career path.

Tyler Pham is a sophomore computer science major from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities who says he saw the REU program as an excellent way to dive further into the topic of deep learning while improving other technical skills.

“This work is different from past class work or labs because it is vastly more advanced; it also strongly encourages us to be resourceful and implement the ideas from various research literature, whereas the average class work has a set of straightforward instructions,” he says.

“The REU experience has been great and has brought me clarity in my future plans,” Pham adds. “Through this project, I’ve concluded that pursuing research and the graduate school path is not for me. I am interested in machine learning and would hope to work on more deep-learning projects, but I will be more focused on pursuing industry-related opportunities, hopefully in artificial intelligence.”

In addition to the laboratory and research experience, the REU students were able to present their research at the annual WiSys Quick Pitch event in July, a UW System competition that encourages innovative student research aimed at practical applications. They were also invited to travel with Blugold Biomedical Innovator Scholars to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to learn more about artificial intelligence in patient care.  

As the first round of REU summer experiences for the supercomputing studies grant comes to a close on Aug. 12, chief investigators will be making plans to build on the experiences of this session for the two upcoming rounds in 2023 and 2024.

“We have two more summers of the grant to go,” Gomes says. “We are very excited for the upcoming sessions and greatly look forward to extending this computational science experience to new cohorts of student researchers. Applications for summer 2023 will go live in January.”