Expanding understanding: computer science student shares benefits of undergraduate research

November 06, 2023

Miles Farmer is conducting undergraduate research

Miles Farmer came to Mizzou Engineering to take advantage of opportunities and tailor his degree to his long-term goals. Now, a sophomore computer science and math major, he’s already conducting undergraduate research and thinking about graduate school.

“The initial catalyst for my involvement in research was the Discovery Fellows Program offered by the Honors College which provided research placement during freshman year,” Farmer said. “I really enjoy the process of solving challenging problems and the experience of creating something new, so the ability to immediately begin work on research was a major reason I chose Mizzou.”

Farmer’s research centers around detecting software vulnerabilities using machine learning techniques and then analyzing the choices made during that process. He is working with Ekincan Ufuktepe, an assistant teaching professor of electrical engineering and computer science, to create a system for source code vulnerability detection using graph neural networks (GNNs) applied to graph code representations.

The project, which is a collaboration with NIST, is ongoing, but Farmer says the approach shows promise in its contributions to understanding GNNs in this application and in its performance compared to existing approaches.

“The resulting system, designed based on the core analyses of our work, exceeds the performance of many existing detectors, including those based on machine learning models,” he said.

So far, he’s most enjoyed the duality of learning more about the topic as a student and discovering new solutions alongside Mizzou’s groundbreaking innovators.

“I really enjoy diving into the intricacies of a topic and being able to use a wide array of concepts to craft a unique solution to a real problem,” Farmer said. “It’s exciting to know that I’m expanding my own understanding of the concepts and techniques that I use, but also contributing to the collective understanding of a topic by creating truly novel information.”

For Farmer, undergraduate research isn’t just about gaining technical experience. It’s also taught him a lot about the research process and research communication, among other skills.

“There’s a lot that goes into research beyond just conducting the experiments,” he said. “It necessitates a high level of technical communication for publishing and collaboration, an ability to survey current literature to inform your own choices and understanding, creativity to devise solutions to solve a variety of problems and time management to juggle research with classes and other obligations.”

It’s partially because of these soft skills that he recommends all students pursue undergraduate research.

“Even if you aren’t planning on a career in research, you get to contextualize the technical information and apply the techniques you learn in courses while simultaneously developing soft skills which are transferable to nearly any work you do,” Farmer said.

For now, Farmer’s long-term goals are focused on continuing to research software analysis and applications of GNNs, including after this conclusion of this project, and applying to graduate school to further his studies. But he is also actively finding internship experience outside of the lab in addition to his research to get a taste of what a career in software engineering is like.

“I’m currently working part-time as an embedded software engineer intern at Garmin as a continuation of my summer internship, which I landed by attending last year’s fall career fair,” Farmer said. “Beyond just being a really enjoyable experience, I’ve already encountered so many concepts in my research and courses that I learned through that opportunity.”

Overall, the Mizzou Engineering experience has created lasting memories and instilled a forward-thinking ideology in Farmer.

“The guidance from research mentors like Dr. Ufuktepe has allowed me to work on real, interesting problems which challenge me to improve my understanding of computer science concepts and work hard to create original ideas,” he said. “And the enthusiasm of my professors has made my courses very engaging.”

Earn an engineering degree at a university with opportunities to solve real-world problems through undergraduate research. Choose Mizzou Engineering!