Contents adapted with permission from Tamara Denning,, retrieved August 2018. Thank you! Hers has more pictures of cats though.

So you think you might be interested in doing work with the IRAL lab? That's great! This page will help you.


  1. Yes, I am taking new students. I am looking for motivated, creative people who can work well with others. Good communication skills are really helpful.

  2. Attend the meeting/reading group. A good way to get involved in any research group is to ask if you can go to their group meeting or reading seminar and actively participate. Independent studies and RA appointments usually come after that.

  3. Funding isn't immediate. I generally don't offer RAs unless I've worked with a student before (via independent study or a course). Master's students are not usually funded via research assistantships.

  4. Independent studies. These generally include a 2-page statement of what you are planning to do (at the beginning of the semester), weekly meetings and/or emailed status reports, a final 6-8 page research paper-style report, and a final presentation.

  5. YMMV: Every point on this list is somewhat flexible.

First steps

What I'll Ask You

I'm actively seeking students who are interested in robotics, machine learning, and natural language processing. You don't have to be interested in all of those things, but it's a good idea to look over the lab's research areas and papers and figure out what we're doing that's most interesting. I will ask two big questions; you may want to think about these beforehand:

Why THIS lab?

  • Robots/machine learning are cool? That's true! What experience do you have with them ("none" is okay)? What specifically about them appeals to you?
  • You need funding? That's fine! But, read the point above, funding isn't immediate.
  • You have an idea that you think might make a neat research project? Awesome, let's talk about it!
  • You don't have an advisor and you're talking to people? That's a great move! Let's talk.
  • You need to connect with a (any) faculty member because you need letters of recommendation? Cool! Let's talk about what you can do that would be beneficial to us both.
  • Are you trying to develop skills to show potential employers (and the actual project doesn't matter)? Great! We always have tasks.

What are your goals? What do you want to do?

  • Push the boundaries of what machine learning can do?
  • Work on robots that can use language to listen and talk to people?
  • Develop robotics for social good (for example, helping seniors live independently)?
  • Tackle hard problems in natural language and communication?
  • Learn to use modern robotics tools and software?
  • Something with robots, which are cool, but you aren't sure what?
  • Something else that you'll tell me about?

Ph.D., Master's, and Undergraduate

I'm currently aiming to have a couple of undergraduates, a few masters students, and 5-6 full-time Ph.D. students, so there's room for you. That said, there are a few caveats:

Undergraduates usually get the most from research after completing their core classes. Consider taking the AI, machine learning, NLP, or robotics classes to start building up your background. If you just got here, it's great that you're already thinking about research and I'm happy to talk to you, but you often need to focus on your studies for a year or two.

Master's students generally will do projects, rather than the thesis option. There are definitely exceptions, when the department requires a thesis or a student gets deeply involved in a research project. It's also a great move to find an advisor in your first couple of semesters.

A Ph.D. is a lengthy degree. You'll start by getting familiar with the projects in the lab (and reading a LOT of papers). Over time, that will evolve into your own project, something that you are guiding yourself. All Ph.D. students publish papers; most will travel to conferences in interesting places.

Prospective UMBC students

Like many schools, we do graduate student admittance at the department level; individual lab groups do not admit students. I definitely encourage you to apply for the program, but an admissions committee makes final decisions, not me. Group membership is usually decided after admittance, and I don't generally offer funding until after I've worked with you in some capacity (see funding isn't immediate, above).

If you've done research work before, or if we've met at a conference, or someone pointed you towards me, or something, you can email me for more about UMBC and to tell me about yourself and why I should look out for your application. Please don't send me a resume. Just tell me how our interests overlap and why you're interested in my lab and work (see questions above).

To apply: