Environmentally Aware

New CSEE assistant professor Nilanjan Banerjee works on building renewable energy-driven devices.

Though technology has become an essential resource for many, it’s using up more and more of another kind of resource: energy. Not only is energy production costly, but it’s not infallible. For a generation that’s come to rely on technology, what do we do when we’re unexpectedly cut off? That’s a question that new Computer Science and Electrical Engineering professor Nilanjan Banerjee, 30, is answering with renewable energy-driven devices that keep us connected, especially when we need it the most.

Consider the following: a natural disaster strikes and you need to find a path to safety. Cell phone towers are down and there’s no wireless internet signal for miles. That's where Dr. Banerjee’s self-sustainable solar-powered emergency mesh comes in. It’s kind of like Google Maps, except it could save your life.

Made up of ultra-low power solar nodes that can be charged with solar panels, the mesh’s goal is to provide natural disaster survivors with a risk-free path to an emergency shelter. Risk-free means that you’ll be guided around burning buildings, car accidents, and other hazards, even if it means taking a bit of a detour. Just pull out your iPhone, or android, or other smartphone, and connect to the mesh when all other wireless networks are down. A digital map will appear and lead you to safety.

The medical and military worlds are two other areas where lives literally count on dependable technology. Here, Banerjee has tied his interest in renewable-energy driven devices to things like EKG data  collection and communication between military busses and tanks.

Green homes are another area of interest for Banerjee, who has been installing monitoring systems in both on and off-grid homes to try and gauge energy consumption. The way it works is they collect instantaneous residual battery voltage and the energy consumed by the house. “Our goal is to make it easier for off-grid and grid-tied home residents to make smart choices about managing energy,” explains the project website. In fact, he’s got a smartphone application in the works that would use this information to tell homeowners when they should use highly consumptive devices like a clothes dryer, and that could send warnings about critical battery situations in the home.

Banerjee discovered renewable energy-driven devices as a Computer Science Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was drawn to the challenge of making these highly efficient devices, and in light of growing global environmental concerns, he thought the field was especially relevant.

After graduate school, Banerjee took a position as an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Arkansas. He started a lab, Mobile, Pervasive, and Sensor Systems Laboratory, which focused on three key areas: renewable energy driven systems, healthcare systems, and mobile phone based systems. As a professor, his course repertoire included subjects like programming paradigms, mobile and pervasive computing, and mobile phone application development.

During his inaugural Fall semester at UMBC, Banerjee will teach Computer Architecture for the first time. He describes his teaching method as “hands on.” Students in his class will see lots of demonstrations, and the chance to learn how to build real systems. Because, while the research is important to him, so is the teaching. After all, it was UMBC’s mix of strength in both research and undergraduate teaching, explains Banerjee, that drew him to the university in the first place.



Visualize This

New CSEE assistant professor Jian Chen creates visualizations to represent large data sets. 

Few things are more daunting than an excel spreadsheet full of data. Even scientists can react to massive data sets with blank stares. That’s where the work of new CSEE assistant professor Jian Chen comes into play. As a designer of visualization and interaction techniques, Chen translates data into symbols that humans are good at interpreting. 

“I have been working with biologists, physiologists, neurologists, cognitive scientists, and structural engineers to study cutting edge visualization science,” says Chen.

Take her work with bats. Chen has been helping biologists analyze bat flight kinematics among species. She looks at how their wings morph during flight, and expresses the information with colorful representations that are easier to grasp than numbers.

Chen’s most recent research grant supports a project that works on expressing massive biology datasets in a simple way. The method is called “PathBubbles.” This interactive pathway visualization tool displays gene products as dots, and the connections between those genes as lines. The color of those dots varies depending on importance, and different colored lines can suggest things like binding between gene products or the sharing of a small molecule.

When a user clicks on a particular dot, it opens up a database of information about each gene product  and each interaction. Scientists can even add dots and lines to the database, as well as information about how the new genes should interact with genes already present in the database. With this new information, the system will be able to predict the effect of the newly-introduced gene product on the biological pathways.

Though PathBubbles is being developed to represent data from gene studies, its ability to graphically test different hypotheses has the potential to be applied to other fields like Chemistry, Engineering, Physics, and Computer Science.

For Chen, who says she was born to be a designer, creating visualizations is about allowing us to understand more, better, and faster. “It may lead to significantly better approaches to human knowledge discovery and decision making in many disciplines where visualizations have found successful application, including Neuroscience, Biomedicine, Bioinformatics, Biology, Chemistry, Geosciences, Business, Economics, and Education.”

Chen fell in love with visualizations as a Master’s student at Tsinghua University and Tianjin University in China, where she was working towards a Mechanical Engineering degree.

After that, Chen got her Master’s in Computer Science from the University of Houston, followed by her Ph.D. from  Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Her first experience with visualizations was as a research associate at Brown University, where she spent three years. Her time in academia convinced Chen that it was where she wanted to stay.

So, despite offers from labs, she took a teaching job at the University of Southern Mississippi. During her three years as an assistant professor, Chen taught both undergraduate and graduate courses like Software Engineering, C Programming, Game Design, 3D Interaction, and Visualization. She started a lab, the Interactive Visual Computing Lab (IVCL), which she hopes to one day bring to UMBC.

“It is an honor for me to join UMBC,” says Chen, who will be teaching Data Structures this fall. Her advice for students who take her class in the fall is to use the knowledge you learn in the classroom to solve real-world problems—not surprising, considering this is what Chen’s research is all about.



Ultimately Academic

New CSEE lecturer John Park shares a little bit about his research and teaching career, and what he loves most about being a professor.

Even though this will be my first real term as a full-time lecturer at UMBC, I'm actually an old hand here.  I have been teaching part-time at UMBC for 4 years, during which I've taken turns at teaching CMSC 104, 202, and 331, in various forms, including developing and teaching CMSC 202H, the new honors section of that course.  I've had extensive industry experience in many subfields of Computer Science, including operating systems, real-time control systems, artificial intelligence/machine learning, digital imaging and graphics, and bioinformatics.  I'm now eager to apply that experience to a much broader range of courses in the department, combining sound theory with practical considerations and applications.  This coming fall, however, I'm easing into the new job by starting with CMSC 104 and 201.

A thumbnail autobiography: I received an A.B. in Biochemistry from Harvard University, with every intention of going on to medical school.  However, I got completely sidetracked by an accidental introduction to computers late in college–back in the early days when most computers still had dozens of toggle switches on the front panel.  Medical school was postponed.

Since then, I've been on an extended professional and academic arc, which has included working at a variety of software and hardware companies, universities, research firms, and startups, including my own.  Along the way, I helped develop a fault-tolerant parallel computer, a next-generation MRI scanner, one of the earliest autonomous land vehicles, and drugs that may one day help you breathe easier.  I was also a PhD candidate in the Biomedical Informatics program at Stanford Medical School, but left ABD ("all but dissertation") to start up a bioinformatics company with some colleagues.

Most recently, I've been doing research at UM College Park, but that project was coming to an end, and I was ready to try something different.  I decided to teach, for three reasons: First, in my part-time teaching here, I found that I was becoming quite attached to the fate of my students, despite my very limited involvement in the program. Now, I’d like to do it more seriously: get more involved with the students, the department, and the university.  Second, I want to leverage my years of practical experience in building software systems to help mold the next generation of computer scientists and software engineers.  Third, and most important, I'm annoyed that my cellphone, my TV, and even my blender, keep crashing, Although I could hack it myself, I'm too lazy to.  So, I want to train more good programmers, so that my stuff will just work, and I won't have to.




CSEE professor Hillol Kargupta featured in Journeys to Data Mining

CSEE professor Hillol Kargupta is one of fifteen Data Mining experts featured in a new book: Journeys to Data Mining: Experiences from 15 Renowned Researchers (Springer, 2012).

The book assembles the career journeys of fifteen experts in the field, answering questions like: “What are your notable success stories”, “What did you learn from your failures”, and “How would you advise a young researcher to make an impact?” Written in a narrative style, the book is a great tool for current Ph.D. students who are trying to find their own success in the field of Data Mining.

Kargupta, who has been teaching at UMBC since January 2001 is also the co-founder of AGNIK INC, a data analytics company for mobile, distributed, and embedded environments. An IEEE fellow, Kargupta has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles. He has a host of awards to his name including the IBM Innovation Award (2008), an NSF CAREER award in 2001 for his research on ubiquitous and distributed data mining, and 2010 IEEE Top-10 Data Mining Case Studies Award for his work at Agnik. More information about Dr. Kargupta’s research accomplishments can be found on his website.

In the book, Kargupta’s personal account is called: “Making Data Analysis Ubiquitous: My Journey Through Academia and Industry.”

His account begins:

“It was one of those late fall mornings in Urbana. I was working on some of the final pages of my dissertation. I got a note from Mike Welge of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) whom I came to know during the course of my work with my Ph.D. advisor David Goldberg. Mike was leading a data mining project for Caterpillar, the US heavy duty equipment manufacturer. Caterpillar clients bring their equipment to their worldwide service center for maintenance and repair. Their service staff types in short descriptions of the work done on the equipment and saves that information in the computer. Caterpillar wanted to link this data from different service centers, analyze, and identify which equipment and parts are failing frequently and related decision support tasks. The problem became more challenging because their employees often used different abbreviations and spelled names incorrectly to describe the work done on the equipment. Mike wanted to address this as an unstructured text data mining problem and asked me if I would like to collaborate. I joined their meetings and started thinking about the problem in a bigger context.”

You can continue reading on Springer’s website.

Marie desJardins in UMBC Magazine

Photo: UMBC Magazine

CSEE Professor Marie desJardins' success at the 2012 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament last March was highlighted in the latest issue of UMBC Magazine:

"I didn't realize I could be this good at crossword puzzles," says desJardins. She adds that her development as a crossword competitor also highlights the hurdles to bringing more women into the sciences.

"A lot of girls think that they must not be intrinsically good at that stuff," argures desJardins, who adds that the biggest impediments are "the psychological blocks we put up for ourselves."

Check out the full write-up on UMBC Magazine's website.



Treat yourself to CWIT's Ice Cream Social

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) invites all students, and the faculty and staff in the College of Engineering and Information Technology to their annual beginning of the year Ice Cream Social. It takes place tomorrow Wednesday, September 5 from 11:30-1:30 p.m. in the atrium of the Engineering/Computer Science (ECS) Building.

Stop to meet other women and men majoring in Engineering, Computer Science, and Information Technology. Plus, who can say no to free ice cream?

Dr.desJardins and Dr. Rheingans in USA Today College on the importance of understanding how computers work

Should an introductory Computer Science course fall within the cadre of General Education Requirements (GEP)—like Math, Science, and English—that are required of all undergrads?

According to a USA Today College article, the answer is yes.

In the article, Computer Science and Electrical Engineering professors Marie desJardins and Penny Rheingans talk about the importance of having, at least, a basic knowledge of how computers work, especially in a world that is quickly evolving in the hands of technology: 

“Inevitably, by the time today’s college students are middle-aged, technology will be unimaginably faster, more powerful and more integrated into our daily lives,” said desJardins, “and the people who understand how it works are the ones who will be helping society to take advantage of it and use it to improve people’s lives.”

For non-technical students who recoil at the thought of taking a computer course, Dr. Rheingans is an example of what can happen when you take a chance. Originally planning to major in the social sciences, says the article, a computer science course during Dr. Rheingans' first semester changed her entire career projection:

“I found computing to be both incredibly frustrating and incredibly addicting,” Rheingans said in an email. “I love the challenge of building something to solve a problem and the satisfaction of figuring out why my creation isn’t working and fixing it.”

Check out the entire article, “The Power of Computing,” to hear more of what professors desJardins and Rheingans have to say about the increasing importance of computer science comprehension. 

CSEE Lecturer Susan Mitchell successfully defends Ph.D. dissertation


Congratulations to CSEE lecturer Susan Mitchell who, on April 6, 2012, successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation entitled “Software Process Improvement through the Removal of Project-level Knowledge Flow Obstacles: The Perceptions of Software Engineers.”

Eight years ago, Dr. Mitchell began working toward her Ph.D. in Software Engineering through UMBC’s Information Systems Department. Working as a lecturer in the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Department while pursuing her degree part-time, Dr. Mitchell’s triumph is an inspiration to all those working stiffs who someday dream of doing the same.

Dr. Mitchell's incentive to go back to school was closely tied to her work as a lecturer. “I teach CMSC 345, Software Design and Development, and I wanted to further my knowledge in the software engineering field,” she says. Designed around the completion of a software-design project, the course mimics a job in the software industry.

Her dissertation—“Software Process Improvement through the Removal of Project-level Knowledge Flow Obstacles: The Perceptions of Software Engineers”—is a case study of a software development team at a major U.S. Department of Defense contracting organization. “Through qualitative methods, such as interviews and focus groups, I was able to locate obstacles to the flow of knowledge within the team that, as perceived by the software engineers, if mitigated or removed, would increase individual efficiency and end-product quality.”

Dr. Mitchell describes software development as a "very human-centric, knowledge intensive endeavor.” “I believe that the major strides in software process improvement (i.e. efficiency and end-product improvements) will not come from process automation or standardization or from the introduction of new development tools, but from changes in the ways that software engineers and managers approach development,” she explains.

Though her title may have changed, Dr. Mitchell's plans are to remain at UMBC as a lecturer. She does hope, however, to continue her research in the area of software process improvement. 

Dr. Tim Oates Promoted to Full Professor

The Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Department wishes to extend its congratulations to Dr. Tim Oates for his promotion from associate professor to full professor.

In 2001, after receiving his Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Dr. Oates began teaching at UMBC. His course repertoire includes Introduction to Machine Learning, Discrete Structures, Data Structures, and the ever-popular Robotics.

As the director of UMBC’s Cognition, Robotics, and Learning (CoRal) Lab, his research centers on machine learning. The vision of the lab is to “understand how artificial systems can acquire grounded knowledge from sensori-motor interaction with their environment that enables cognitive activities like natural language communication and planning,” says the lab’s website. More about his research interests can be found in his research profile.  

In addition to his academic work, Dr. Oates contributed to the department last year as chair of the ABET Assessment committee. He is also the advisor for UMBC’s student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society.

UMBC chess team ties for second place at 2012 President's Cup

UMBC’s legendary chess team tied for second place last Sunday in the 2012 President’s Cup in Herndon, Virginia. UMBC tied with the University of Texas-Dallas with a final score of 7.5 points. Both schools were bypassed for first place by Texas Tech University with a mere ½ point lead.

Started by CSEE professor Dr. Alan Sherman in the early 90’s, UMBC’s chess team has gained a reputation that rivals that of many Ivy League schools. Since its inception, the team has won or tied for first nine times at the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship (Pan-Am) and six times at the President’s Cup.

When Dr. Sherman started the chess program, he never dreamed that its success would become such an iconic part of UMBC's idenitity. “Eventually, I realized that I was the right person, at the right place, at the right time, to make some significant contributions to college chess, while helping students, the community, and UMBC along the way,” writes Sherman on his website where he chronicles the history of chess at UMBC.

Sherman began by recruiting students with strong backgrounds in chess. Then, in 1994, he convinced Igor Epshteyn, a former coach of the Olympic Reserve Team, to coach at UMBC. From then on, the program continued to gain momentum.

Now, like any other college sport, the program offers prestigious scholarships for its members. The current team members, made up of Grand Master Leonid Kritz, Grand Master Giorgi Margvelashvili, International Master Sasha Kaplan, and Woman Grand Master Sabina Foisor, are all attending the university on chess scholarships.

In a Baltimore Sun article, Dr. Sherman commented on the team's performance last weekend:

"It was an extremely close event, and it could have gone to either of the top teams," Alan T. Sherman, director of UMBC's Chess program, said after the President's Cup. "The team is overall happy with its performance."










Left: Grand Master Giorgi Margvelashvili (right)–a Sophomore majoring in Financial Economics– competes in the President's Cup last Sunday.

Right: International Master Sasha Kaplan (left)–a Junior majoring in Mathematics–at the President's Cup last Sunday.

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