Argonne National Laboratory

Sensing their way to the future

By Steve KoppesSeptember 20, 2017

When Pete Beckman was an undergraduate in the 1980s, science and engineering majors typically sought summer jobs as lifeguards, golf caddies and other such positions filled by teenagers.

“Now students and a lot of universities expect that undergraduate students participate in research in one form or another,” said Beckman, senior computer scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and co-director of the Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering (NAISE). “This is an expectation that engineering and science undergraduate students have and is an important change to our educational system.”

“Now students and a lot of universities expect that the students participate in research in one form or another. This is an expectation that engineering and science students have and is an important change to our educational system.” - Pete Beckman, senior computer scientist at Argonne and co-director of the Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering (NAISE).

This summer, NAISE offered its inaugural summer research program for 12 undergraduate science and engineering majors at Northwestern. During the 10-week program, the students worked on projects of mutual strategic importance to Argonne and the university in machine learning, environmental sensing, synthetic biology, energy storage, and materials synthesis and characterization.

“The institute is broader than the summer student program,” said NAISE research director Jennifer Dunn, principal environmental analyst at Argonne. NAISE fosters research collaborations between Northwestern and Argonne researchers, for example, as well as internships for undergraduates and graduate students at the laboratory.

“Certainly, undergraduates from Northwestern have come over to Argonne to do research, but there hadn’t been a summer undergraduate program through NAISE until this summer,” Dunn said.

By funding the students through NAISE, Northwestern sought to build collaborations and provide students the opportunity to do experiential learning — an active, hands-on, experienced-based complement to classroom learning.

“Experiential learning is one of Northwestern’s strategic goals,” Beckman said. “NAISE wants to facilitate experiential learning by having Northwestern students come to Argonne and get this kind of hands-on learning.”

Three of the students worked to improve the capabilities of sensors to both measure and predict environmental phenomena. Ethan Trokie, a junior in computer engineering, used a camera linked to computers to help automatically detect flooded areas. Renee Zha, a junior in computer science, used computer vision to monitor the growth of two plant species. And Jordan Fleming, a recent graduate in mechanical and environmental engineering, developed hardware sensors to measure soil moisture and other properties of the environment.

“All three of these students worked in sensing, two of them using computer vision to automatically process data,” Beckman said. The students collaborated with Beckman, as well as Cristina Negri, director of Argonne’s Environmental Science Division, and Aaron Packman, a Northwestern NAISE fellow.

In an unusual twist, Zha joined two different research groups. She worked mainly in Argonne’s Environmental Science Division, as her project was part of a larger environmental science study, but her computer vision work connected her to another group in the Mathematics and Computer Science Division.

“Without all of this support, I wouldn’t have had the guidance and resources necessary to complete my work,” Zha said. “I learned a lot from the other interns, and, perhaps most important, formed lifelong friendships.”

Trokie reported in the NAISE summer students’ blog that his work was related to Argonne’s Waggle research project. Waggle is a sensing platform that is being tested in environmental science settings, such as the Nature Conservancy’s Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, Illinois. The platform also is used by the Array of Things, an urban sensing project.

Waggle’s goal is “to deploy an array of sensors all over Chicago to detect different things such as air quality, noise and other factors. The data … will become open source so that scientists and policy makers can work together to make new discoveries and informed policy,” Trokie wrote.

Another student, Michael Park, a junior in biomedical engineering, joined a research group led by Argonne computational biologist Christopher Henry to develop the new DOE-supported KBase software. This software is designed to meet the grand challenge of systems biology—predicting and designing biological function on scales ranging from the biomolecular to the ecological.

The students benefited significantly over the summer, according to Beckman and Dunn. “Working on a research team where the dynamics are with professionals who want to publish papers and deploy something at the end is a new experience for many of the students,” Beckman said.

The computer vision code for flooding monitoring, for example, will be deployed in sensors in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood by Aaron Packman and his associates at the Northwestern Center for Water Research.

The students presented their work at Argonne in mid-August and presented their projects at Northwestern on Sept. 19, 2017.

“We are excited to continue the dialogue between Argonne researchers and Northwestern faculty, building on what’s already going on, but with more discussions and more ideas of how we can work together,” Dunn said. 

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.