Hands-on Research for Undergraduates

From robots to bee pollen, Summer Scholars are learning the value of research firsthand with Tufts faculty
Muhammad Faizan and computer scientist Jivko Sinapov looking at a square robot
Muhammad Faizan, E20, and computer scientist Jivko Sinapov collaborate on Faizan’s project, Augmented Reality for Collaborative Service Robots. Photo: Anna Miller
July 24, 2018

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The robot’s name is R2-D2, and while it doesn’t look like the famous Star Wars droid, it may someday be just as resourceful and autonomous—at least, that’s what Faizan Muhammad, E20, hopes.

Muhammad envisions a day when this R2-D2 will navigate Halligan Hall with ease, even asking a human to press the elevator down button. It’s a scenario he shared recently with his Summer Scholars faculty mentor Jivko Sinapov, the James Schmolze Assistant Professor in Computer Science, about using augmented reality to visualize the robot's perspective of the real world.

Just imagining those possibilities—and the chance to contribute to scholarly and scientific knowledge—Muhammad said, makes for an unforgettable summer.

“This is the first time that I get to conduct my own research project,” he said. “It will always have a special place in my heart.”

Muhammad is one of fifty-one Summer Scholars undergraduates this year who are discovering the challenges and rewards of intensive, hands-on research. The scholars, each paired with a faculty mentor, receive a $3,500 stipend to support a focused project, one that might evolve into a senior honors thesis—plus a $1,000 research budget that they can use until they graduate.  

Launched fifteen years ago by former provost Jamshed Bharucha, the Summer Scholars program is built on Tufts’ strength as a liberal arts institution set within a research university, and sets the pace for additional summer opportunities, such as the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Program and the Global Research Assistant Program.

The ten-week program appeals to students with strong academic interests and often informs the direction of their academic lives, said Anne Moore, G12, who has managed the program since 2012. It also offers social activities so the students can get to know each other, and professional development programming such as guest speakers. The program culminates in a two-day event on August 8 and 9 when students present their work.

“I want the students to feel really excited about research as a process—to take their own ideas seriously and grow their intellectual confidence,” said Moore.

Guadalupe Garcia, A19, sees her Summer Scholars project as a rare opportunity “to do research that came out of my own head.” An architectural history major with a minor in Latino Studies, she begins a dual degree master’s program this fall in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP). Her dream job after graduation is to work with communities on urban planning issues that impact marginalized populations.

Her self-designed project, “Life of Latinx Women in Somerville,” is helping her begin that journey. In interviews with women ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-eight, she is uncovering what daily life is like for them in Somerville, with specific focus on access to food, transportation, housing, and education. She has weekly meetings with her advisor, Penn Loh, a senior lecturer in UEP, and next spring hopes to incorporate her data with a geographical information system to make an accessibility map for Somerville that she hopes will reveal practical insights.

“There isn’t much that’s being done on Latinx and where they live,” she said. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term used in place of Latino or Latina.) “Being able to highlight some of those issues is what this research allows me to do.”

Indeed, “one of the great things about being an undergraduate is that you can research whatever you want to,” said Moore. “We encourage innovation from undergrads.”

Muhammad Faizan, left, uses his phone to tap into his robot’s camera to see if the robot can identify a human form, along with Jivko Sinapov, right. Photo: Anna MillerJustine Chung, A19, a double major in philosophy and Film and Media Studies, said that inherent freedom is a good fit with her interdisciplinary perspective. Her project focuses on analyzing films created for a virtual reality interface.

“My main motor is curiosity,” said Chung, who grateful for support and the “encyclopedic knowledge” of her mentor, Malcolm Turvey, the Sol Gittleman Professor in Film and Media Studies. “If the viewer feels like a part of the film, then how, I wondered, does the director make choices about how they convey the story?”

The project, she said, “is helping me grow intellectually.” It has shown her “that if you follow your curiosity and devote time to it, you begin to trust in the process of searching for answers.”

For Carolyn Burtt, A19, the Summer Scholars experience has opened a door to a whole new world of environmental research. She joined Elizabeth Crone, a professor of biology, this past spring in an Ipswich, Massachusetts, meadow for research on habitat barriers to bumblebee dispersal, recording bumblebee flight patterns around their in-ground nests. For her project this summer, Burtt is categorizing grains of pollen collected from wild and domestic bees, which will help Crone and graduate student Genevieve Pugesek identify any differences and commonalities between what kinds of pollen the bees collect.

“A lot of people who know me wonder how studying bumblebees relates to my interest in becoming a nurse,” she said. “But if I go into nursing, I think I’ll be a better nurse—I’ve become more cognizant that research is very collaborative, and that’s an important lesson to learn. It’s also shown me a lot about how to be a professional.”

For many students considering graduate school, the Summer Scholars program provides invaluable insights, too. “Going for a Ph.D. is not for the faint of heart,” Moore said. “You should have experience with independent research before you commit—and the Summer Scholars program really offers that experience.”

Muhammad, who is co-president of the Tufts Robotics Club, said his Summer Scholars experience has confirmed his passion for robotics—even when things are not going well. “There was one whole week where I was stuck on one problem, but at the same time it was very satisfying to finally solve it.”

Designing the project, writing the proposal, making his own schedule and sticking to it, he said, also confirms that he’ll continue on to graduate school. “Robotics is a big field, but I’m immersing myself in it now and so far the experience is very good—I feel like I’m halfway there.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.