REU students win research awards at Summer Institute

First placeREUThree computer science and engineering REU students were recognized for their research posters at the 2015 Summer Institute on Flooding hosted by the Center for Emergency Informatics.

Julia Proft, Matt Hegarty and Abygail McMilan were recognized for having the best research posters out of 10 participants. As part of their award, they will develop their research into mobile applications for emergency responders. The students are participating in the “Computing for Disasters” Research Experience for Undergraduates at Texas A&M University. The program is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Through research on emergency informatics, these students developed programs that allow emergency responders to shrink the amount of data that must be dissected by hand. Their research allows responders to assist those in need quicker and more effectively.

When there is a disaster, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are used to take pictures of the landscape, search for survivors and assess the situation. The students’ programs analyzed thousands of images collected during the 2015 Texas floods. Their goal was to reduce the amount of time responders spent searching for points of interest and to document where and when the images were taken.

Proft, a senior at Connecticut College, placed first in the poster competition. She developed a program that looks at pictures of the landscape and searches for unnatural changes in color. The program locates the points of interest to create hot spots where responders prioritize their search.

“This research has changed my perspective on collaboration between academia and industry,” Proft said. “I’m excited to do research that has a real and immediate use.”

The second place winner, Hegarty, is a senior at Texas A&M. His program eliminates the number of pictures that analysts must dissect by flagging pictures that have straight lines and square corners. These features rarely occur in nature and are often man-made objects. By flagging these pictures, analysts save time by eliminating thousands of pictures.

“This technology saves time and ultimately saves lives,” Hegarty said.

McMilan, a senior at the University of North Georgia, received third place for her poster presentation. McMilan developed a program that organizes pictures into a map for responders. The program is capable of organizing multiple picture sets from numerous responders and various time periods.

Dr. Robin Murphy, the principle investigator for the Computing for Disasters grant is the research adviser of these students. She has used the funding from the National Science Foundation to motivate students. 

“Our site grant is unique in two ways,” Murphy said. “It motivates students by giving them research projects that benefit society and requires them to work with real responders. Through the program, we have attracted a large number of women and minorities and have educated them in human-center computing.”

The poster presentation competition was a small section of the larger Summer Institute. Nineteen students from across the country participated in the Summer Institute to learn from 40 first responders, industry professionals, and academic researchers.

“It was interesting to hear real responders talk about what they need from researchers,” McMilan said. “It was eye opening to hear the reality versus what is portrayed on TV.”

The 2015 Summer Institute had over 60 participants from 12 governmental agencies, 11 universities and three Texas A&M colleges.