GAANN fellows get teaching instruction, pursue research projects
Two years after receiving a Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) grant from the United States Department of Education, the MU College of Engineering’s Computer Science Department has funded five doctoral students through the program.
Chi-Ren Shyu, professor of computer science and the project director, said the five students are receiving teaching instruction, funding for conferences and professional networking opportunities in addition to a need-based stipend and waiver of tuition and course fees.
“This is not like a research grant, it’s not product. This is long term training,” Shyu said. “They will be future teachers. We want to train our next generation of educators in computer science.”
The five trainees, as Shyu calls them, are Chris Hathhorn, Brittany Morago, Michael Phinney, Adam Proctor and Samantha Warren. A requirement for GAANN fellows is to get a minor in higher ed teaching while they work toward their doctorates.
Warren said she has always enjoyed teaching. Her favorite part is when she can get an idea to click for a student. “There’s this look that every student gets when you explain it in a way that they can actually understand,” she said.
Part of the GAANN program involves the fellows practicing as guest lecturers. Shyu said they then get immediate constructive feedback from professors observing them.
“They’re all great teachers,” Shyu said. “They’re very flexible in taking advice and they take that into consideration. It’s great to see them grow.”
In addition to learning about and practicing teaching, networking and career planning are important parts of the GAANN program. All of the fellows take a “Preparing Future Faculty” course, which explores salary negotiations, different teaching options and how to apply for positions.
Phinney said the GAANN fellowship moves him toward his goal of being a faculty member where he can do research.
“I would really prefer to be a faculty member rather than work in industry,” he said. “I like the idea of doing new things all the time and I never saw that opportunity in going straight into industry.”
Hathhorn said the opportunity to network has been an advantage of the GAANN fellowship. “In addition to the scholarship, I get the mentorship and connections with professors,” he said.
For Warren, opportunities that come from attending conferences have been enabled by the GAANN fellowship. “It would’ve been hard to come up with the funds otherwise,” she said. “They provide everything you need. Nothing is unattainable.”
Shyu meets regularly with the five fellows and they also have faculty mentors they work closely with on research. The focus of the grant is mainly on teaching. “This is not to tell them what to do in their research, it is to provide them with resources and allow them to explore their future career path,” Shyu said.
The research Warren is working on right now deals with the evolution of the influenza virus through time and its different protein structures. By looking at the changing shape of the proteins and gaining a better knowledge of the structures that are stable through time, a better vaccine could be designed.
“Evolution is interesting to me because no matter how many questions you might answer, there are always more,” Warren said. “It’s maddening but also very fun.”
Warren also hopes this type of evolutionary research can help predict, through statistical analysis, what might happen in the future. She said it could also be applied to other viruses like HIV.
“Her research shows the power of computational science in the life sciences,” Shyu said.
Warren had little experience in computer science when she started working with Dmitry Korkin, an assistant professor of computer science. Her background is mainly in biochemistry but she has taught herself how to code. A project she worked on with Korkin involving nematodes was published in Nature magazine.
Hathhorn has worked as a software developer but is now working on a theoretical approach to understand software.
“It’s kind of a very formal alternative to testing. That really appeals to me,” he said. “This fellowship has really let me broaden my experience and get exposure to more theoretical approaches.”
Hathhorn is developing formal semantics for CUDA-C, a programming language used in graphics processing units (GPUs).
“The purpose is to better understand software in general. More specifically, we’re interested in being able to show that software preserves certain properties,” Hathhorn said.
Instead of showing that the language can do one thing or another, Hathhorn said the goal is to really show everything that the language can do by fully understanding it.
“One of the things that sets computer science apart from other disciplines is the wealth of formal languages – languages that are constructed by humans,” Hathhorn said. “Basically, in our lab we take a language approach to computer science.”
Phinney wants to design a Facebook for researchers — sort of.
His goal is to create a network for researchers to discover and connect with collaborators who have complementary areas of expertise.
“It would be more of a tool rather than a novelty,” Phinney said. “We want to have a functional social network designed specifically for researchers so they can search for other researchers that have an expertise in an area that would provide a benefit to their research.”
Right now, he’s still working on creating the infrastructure for the network but he has plans for the information gathered when the network becomes operational.
“The research aspect is from the data we collect. It will analyze the relationships between researchers and how they interact within the network,” Phinney said. He also plans to create a visual representation of the network, which appeals to his creativity.
“I want to find a good way to paint a picture of what a network looks like,” Phinney said.