A SURE thing: Research program advances knowledge, skills

September 11, 2023

Mentored by faculty, 32 students participated in UM-Dearborn’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program. Check out a few of the projects.

UM-Dearborn students spent their summer mapping energy inequities in the state, exploring how to stop cancer from spreading and understanding the role of human emotion in autonomous vehicle development. These are only a few of the 32 research projects that students helped advance during the 2023 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program.

Mentored by faculty, SURE students — who received a stipend for their work — met community members, gathered data, interpreted findings and practiced presenting their research. In addition, students attended professional development workshops on how to turn these experiences into marketable career skills in their chosen fields and post-undergrad research opportunities. “It opened my eyes to the benefit of not only pursuing careers in research, but pursuing higher education beyond your bachelor’s degree,” said SURE participant Caleb Nickens, a senior studying computer science.

This Tuesday and Thursday, Reporter will be profiling six SURE projects across all four colleges. You can see all projects at the SURE Showcase, which takes place from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday in the Mardigian Library.

Photo of Professor Wencong Su and student LaRico Andres

LaRico Andres and Wencong Su: “Seeing Energy Injustice: An Interactive Map for Visualizing Utility Redlining in America” (CECS)

Electrical and Computer Engineering Chair and Professor Wencong Su and electrical engineering senior LaRico Andres used Geographic Information System technology to identify energy inequities in southeast Michigan. Using DTE’s outage mapping, Andres built a dashboard where power outages can be viewed in real time and compared with other variables, including population, poverty level, median home value and historical redlining — a discriminatory federal housing policy from the mid-20th century that has had lasting effects on neighborhoods.

When looking at the data, Andres says it’s clear the city of Detroit is particularly hard hit by the current state of the electrical system. While infrastructure supporting new technologies like solar and electric vehicle charging has been implemented downtown, those updates don’t extend into neighborhoods where the poverty rate is high and many people struggle to pay their electric bills. 

“A lot of people from my community are living day to day,” Andres, a northwest Detroit resident, says. “The last thing you need is the power to go out. We want to just level the playing field.”

Andres explains these neighborhoods have outdated equipment which means more outages for the residents. With outages come additional expenses such as spoiled food. For families that are already paying a high percentage of their income to keep their electricity on, it’s a burden they cannot afford. Andres hopes the visual representation of disproportionate power loss will help to create awareness, both within the community and politically.

Su says he plans to continue their work, building on the capabilities of their current dashboard to extend into predictive modeling of power outages from significant weather events. “Oftentimes for undergraduate students, research projects just provide a training opportunity,” Su remarks. “But this time is very different because his results could pave the way for the next significant project.”

Photo of CASL student Ava Abramowicz getting documentary footage at a music festival in West Virginia
Documentary crew member Jay Hammond with student Ava Abramowicz

Ava Abramowicz and Adam Sekuler: “Clifftop Documentary” (CASL)

While documentary filmmakers often embed with their subjects, they don’t typically live side-by-side with them. But that’s exactly what Ava Abramowicz did for two weeks as part of the crew working on a film about the Appalachian String Band Music Festival, held in the mountains of West Virginia. Abramowicz says the proximity to the musicians and festival-goers was one of the best parts of the experience.

“There’s this grand sense of community that the attendees have that you could be anywhere on the festival grounds and people are chatting with you, they’re your best friend all of a sudden, everyone is super giving, there’s this sense of taking care of one another,” she reflects. Working so closely with other filmmakers gave her keen insight into their work and processes, and she says she felt surrounded by mentors. 

She also gained familiarity with a range of equipment -- more than she bargained for as their entire sound crew came down with Covid and Abramowicz had to step in. “There’s a difference between when you’re in the classroom learning about the equipment and you’re getting some use out of it, versus actually seeing it in work on a set,” she observes.

“I was totally impressed with Ava’s ability to adapt quickly and maneuver through what was clearly a difficult situation and being put into a number of environments that she was completely unfamiliar with,” says Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Production Adam Sekuler, the director of the film and Abramowicz’s SURE mentor.

Those environments may have included hiking 45 minutes both ways through the woods with equipment to capture two musicians swimming and playing their instruments near a waterfall and sleeping in a van, but they have only fueled Abramowicz’s enthusiasm. She has now added independent film projects to her “eyes wide open” list of potential future pursuits.

Student Caleb Nickens and CECS Professor Areen Alsaid

Caleb Nickens and Areen Alsaid: Affect and Emotion in L3 Driving (CECS)

Computer Science senior Caleb Nickens created an immersive virtual driving environment to assist Professor Areen Alsaid with her ongoing study of autonomous vehicle driving and human emotion. Nickens built the platform with Unity — a software traditionally utilized for game development.

With the use of virtual reality headsets, the researchers are able to replicate the sensation of being in a vehicle while assorted driving scenarios are occurring, including varying weather and traffic conditions. The emotional response of research participants to the scenarios can then be evaluated using physiological measurements such as heart rate, skin conductance and eye movement. 

“The reason we wanted to get this data is specifically for L3 autonomous vehicles, which are not entirely autonomous but at certain points will reset control over to the driver based on whatever various conditions the vehicle determines it may need to,” Nickens says. 

The information collected will help researchers understand what road conditions make passengers feel uncomfortable with an autonomous vehicle being in control. “A vehicle might be equipped to drive in the rain very well, but you don’t want the passenger to feel unsafe or stressed out,” Nickens notes. 

It can also provide insight on when passengers may not be paying enough attention for the vehicle to be safely operated autonomously, for instance, during a scenic drive or while on vacation. “Happy individuals make poor decisions. They become over trusting. They become risk-takers,” Alsaid explains. “They might become more trusting of the automated vehicle to the point that it is beyond AV’s capabilities.”

For Nickens, the SURE Program was his first experience assisting with faculty research. “It opened my eyes to the benefit of, not only pursuing careers in research, but pursuing higher education beyond your bachelor’s degree,.” he reflects.