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Research relationship leads grad student to campus honor

Jim Keller and Andrew Buck pose with a plaque.

Andrew Buck, right, was presented with the campus’ Donald K. Anderson Graduate Research Assistant Award. MU Curators Professor Jim Keller, left, connected with engineering senior Andrew Buck in 2009. What started out as an undergraduate research position for Buck became a very successful research partnership. Photo courtesy of Lauri Buck.

For a faculty/researcher, having the importance of research investigations recognized and funded is of the utmost importance. Of nearly equal significance is finding the perfect research assistant to help move innovations up the chain.

MU Curators Professor Jim Keller, the R.L. Tatum Professor in MU’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department (ECE), connected with engineering senior Andrew Buck in 2009. What started out as an undergraduate research position for Buck became a very successful research partnership. On track to earn his doctorate in December, the work and projects the pair has shared since joining forces has been rewarding and impressive on both sides of the working relationship.

In mid-April, based on his mentor’s nomination and supporting materials from others, Buck was presented with the campus’ Donald K. Anderson Graduate Research Assistant Award, recognizing his outstanding contributions on the basis of demonstrated excellence; lasting impact in research; promise as a researcher; originality; imagination and mentorship of others.

Donald K. Anderson was an associate dean in the Graduate School from 1970 to 1974, and served as a professor of English from 1965 to 1992. The original award bearing his name was initiated in 1972.

“My first project was based on modeling spatial relationships,” Buck said of the “text-to-sketch” project he worked on in Keller’s lab, which involved generating a map based on a description of one’s environment. Keller is recognized worldwide for his fuzzy logic research.

In his first semester as a graduate student with Keller, Buck worked on an evolutionary algorithm (EA) to match the map with satellite imagery.

“Drew worked diligently with our research team, always willing to chip in and do the sometimes tedious data collection and testing,” Keller wrote in his nomination letter.

The work paid off. In 2012, a manuscript on the EA matching technique was published in the IEEE Transactions on Evolutionary Computation. After refining his approach, another manuscript was published and presented at the 2013 IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence the following year. Buck’s methodology for the research was to create a hybrid memetic algorithm by combining the EA with a deterministic approach, a highly successful instinct that earned him a Best Paper Award.

After that, Buck switched gears to focus more closely on agent-based movement models.

“Dr. Keller gave me a lot of flexibility,” Buck said.

“It took me a long time to zero in on a way to simulate how people move and behave in, for instance, disaster situations. How does your mental map guide you? It touches on cognitive psychology,” Buck said. “Recently, we’ve been looking at how we can study these questions using the ‘traveling salesman problem’ where the shortest route preferred by each person may be different when taking into account various environments.”

“If you can observe someone according to their specific preferences, can you predict where they will go next? It’s called anticipatory analysis,” Buck said. “It’s trying to build agent models that can mimic or behave as a person.”

Buck’s paper on the research, “Visualizing Uncertainty with Fuzzy Rose Diagrams,” used unknown or fuzzy parameters to conceptualize anticipated movement.

“Dr. Keller has told me that I have the greatest visualizations,” Buck said. “I have an artistic background, and it has helped with the data visualization.”

The paper, presented at the 2014 “IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence,” won the top student paper award.

“[It is] a pretty startling event for one person to win back-to-back awards like this,” Keller wrote. “But Buck’s approach is innovative and stunning.”

Buck said Keller has been very supportive. “It’s never, ‘We have this problem to solve,’” Buck said. “But ‘let’s see what we can do.’”

Buck said that once he earns his doctorate, he’s open to all possibilities, including a company with a big research budget and good team.

“If you find the right match, it’s great. You can put all of your effort into it,” he said.