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Engineering and computer science students spent ten weeks in laboratories this summer conducting complex research, from the use of drones and computer vision technology to improve disaster response to grafting stem cells to repair damaged tissue and organs.

For many, the most unexpected discovery was what scientific exploration taught them about themselves.

ASPiRe (Advanced Summer Program in Research)

The Advanced Summer Program in Research (ASPiRe) offers undergraduate engineering and computer science students the opportunity to work with faculty mentors on research related to their major.

“This is an opportunity for students to gain very valuable experience outside of the classroom,” said Dr. Sina Rabbany, dean of the Fred DeMatteis School of Engineering and Applied Science, who designed the program.  “Studies have shown that students who participate in research have significantly increased chances of getting into top tier graduate programs across the country.”

Students submit a one-page proposal outlining their research and the resources they will need to complete their project. In its first year, five students participated in the summer program.  Three years later, there are twenty-five ASPiRe students.

Biomedical engineering major, Jade Arena ’19, was inspired to pursue her research in histology - the study of the microscopic structures of tissues - after learning about the topic in a class she took with Dr. Roche de Guzman, PhD, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering.  Arena submitted a proposal, Histological Processing and Analysis of Chicken Muscle Tissues, to investigate the structures and organization of muscle tissue cells and extracellular matrix proteins.  She hopes to continue her research in the fall with Dr. de Guzman and extend her work on histology of mouse muscles implanted with bone-inducing factors that can ultimately be used to help patients suffering from bone damage and osteoporosis.

“ASPiRe has given me a chance to gain experience working in a lab and apply what I’ve learned in class about different biomaterials,” Arena said.  “It has also taught me self-discipline and how to think creatively to discover new strategies when I encounter an unexpected roadblock in the lab.”

Students receive a $3600 stipend to cover the cost of research materials and to compensate them for their time over the summer.  The program is supported in part by donations from DeMatteis School Advisory Board members and alumni. 

“We wanted to make sure that any student interested in research, regardless of their financial situation, is able to participate in the program,” Dean Rabbany said.

ASPiRe (Advanced Summer Program in Research)

Math and computer science major Justin Miller, ’20, worked with Oren Segal, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Kira Adaricheva, associate professor of mathematics.  Miller’s project, called The Computation of Association Rules of High Confidence, focuses on implementing and refining a new data mining algorithm that can be used to analyze sets of genes and determine patient outcomes for cancer research. 

“I felt like this project would be the best way to contribute to my future by learning valuable research skills and to also contribute to a cause I believe in—cancer research,” Miller said.  “I've really improved my ability to solve programming problems without easy answers and on a personal level, I've definitely developed better communication skills.”

An unexpected outcome of Miller’s research was an invitation to present his findings in summer 2018 at the Fourth International Conference on Data Mining (DTMN 2018) in Sydney, Australia. The conference is a peer-reviewed forum where researchers worldwide present the results, projects, and industrial experiences that describe significant advances in data mining and applications.  Only thirteen abstracts were selected.

“A conference presentation marks the culmination of all the effort that went into a research project,” Dr. Oren Segal said. “It’s a chance to meet other people who are working in the same research field, exchange ideas and make connections and it offers a student a chance to practice public speaking and learn how to convey a large body of information in a concise and meaningful way under strict time constraints.”

Electrical engineering major Ron Dias ’20, worked with Assistant Professor of Engineering Edward Segal on Drones Semi-Autonomously Deploying Bridges with Computer Vision.  Dias researched the feasibility of using drones and computer vision technology to semi-autonomously create footbridges that can be used to rescue people stranded in floods and other natural disasters.  He worked on the development of a drone that would have the capability of wrapping a rope around an object such as a tree or street sign to deploy a temporary bridge.   Dias used computer vision to detect environmental objects that could be used to deploy the temporary span.

Dias’ passion to pursue his project was inspired by a drone tree detection application developed by Dr. Segal and a few of his colleagues in the military.

“The original idea was to semi-automate the deployment of these anchors by getting a drone to recognize a faraway tree, wrap a rope around it, and return to its origin without humans manually controlling the flight with a remote controller,” Dias explained.  “From there it expanded into using drones to deploy temporary bridges.”

Dias hit several roadblocks throughout the course of his research.  While the setbacks were challenging, he also learned that thinking creatively is at the heart of engineering and what ultimately advances technology for the better. 

Engineering experiement

“It can be frustrating when solving one problem leads you to a door of new problems,” Dias said, “but at the same time, there is a huge feeling of accomplishment and pride once the final product is working and you retrospectively look back at all the solutions that make it possible.”

Senior biomedical engineering students Stephanie Zaferiou and Abigail Tubbs spent their summer in the Ultrasound Research Lab with Dr. Sleiman Ghorayeb, PhD, Professor of Engineering as well as a Professor of Radiology and Molecular Medicine in the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. Together, they explored the Ultrasonic Comparison of Traditionally and Ultrasonically Decellularized Cardiac Tissue, investigating the cultivation and grafting of stem cells to repair damaged tissues and organs. 

ASPiRe (Advanced Summer Program in Research)

Zaferiou and Tubbs used an ultrasonic cell disruptor to decellularize (cause a chemical and mechanical disruption) in heart tissue. Then, they used an acoustic microscope to assess the differences between cardiac tissue that had been decellularized with the ultrasonic device, versus tissue decellularized using a detergent and a shaker, the traditional method.

The traditional decellularization method takes days to complete.  Using ultrasound, Zaferiou and Tubbs were able to complete decellularization after six hours.  The goal of their research was to create new tissue that is genetically identical to that of a cardiac patient, so it can be used as a replacement for valves, arteries and veins.

Zaferiou and Tubbs plan to continue their research and explore its application to the treatment of kidney and liver disease.

“Our research gave us valuable experience in decision making, planning, and problem solving,” Zaferiou said.  “Communication was also a key element to success in this experiment because a certain amount of material and time was needed each time we ran a protocol. I think we gained a better understanding of what goes into research, which is an invaluable experience in our major.”

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