Google has committed $250,000 to Rice University for the creation of a state-wide REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) in Computer and Data Science. The 10-week paid internship program aims to reach traditionally underrepresented students while building a steady pipeline of diverse talent in the areas of data science, computer systems and adjacent fields.
“Rice is grateful for Google’s partnership, which exemplifies our mutual dedication to diversifying the fields of computer and data science and helps Rice to extend our impact beyond our own campus,” says Leah Aschmann, Rice’s director of corporate relations. “We look forward to growing our relationship with Google to continue to positively affect the lives of students at Rice, across Texas and beyond.”
The REU summer program provides undergraduates with access and exposure to groundbreaking research in the fields of computer and data science through direct, one-on-one faculty mentorship. The interns also work directly with the faculty's lab members including doctoral or post-doctoral researchers.
For the first time this summer, Rice will collaborate with R1 institution Texas A&M University and HBCU Prairie View A&M University to launch the expanded program. Organizers plan to add one additional R1 institution and two minority-serving institutions in the state of Texas in summer 2024. By implementing this REU across multiple Texas institutions, this model will serve as one that can be replicated across the U.S.
"The exciting thing about the Google funding is that it funds the first step toward building a Texas-wide REU that is able to serve hundreds of students each year,” said Chris Jermaine, chair of Rice’s Department of Computer Science. The REU program was initially established under the leadership of Jermaine in 2021. “Rice is a small school, and we're limited in terms of what we can accomplish on our own. We'd like to build something sustainable and impactful that involves large, public research universities like A&M, smaller private schools like Rice, and minority-serving institutions like Prairie View."
“This builds on our long-standing relationship with Google,” said Rice REU program director Risa Myers. “We plan to include them in the kick-off event, and hopefully they will continue to provide technical speakers as they have in the past.”
“With the multi-site approach, we get to learn from each other, broaden the types of projects we do and the kind of students we have,” Myers adds. “It's important – not just for the students – but for the institutions to build partnerships and learn more about what the different schools are doing, especially the minority-serving institutions that may not have graduate programs. One of the goals is that we can share mentors if needed.”
“This is a great program, not only for student support but also for our faculty who are looking for students to train and work on research projects with,” adds Noushin Ghaffari, assistant professor of computer science at Prairie View A&M and director of the Texas A&M Prairie View REU in Computer and Data Science. “They might have been eager to conduct research with students in the past, but they haven’t been able to do so due to the lack of a funding source.”
Some of the new features this summer will be two in-person events that include all three programs. The REU will begin May 22nd and will include a joint kick-off on the Rice campus sometime during the initial week. The culmination of the program will be a shared research symposium on July 27 and 28, 2023. In addition to their research endeavors, students will participate in workshops on conducting research, reading papers, and preparing scientific posters. Interns will have the opportunity to attend a variety of technical, career and research talks as well, engaging with working professionals in the field.
“Participants will have more chances to present and learn from each other about what they’ve done, and the fantastic thing about doing the symposium at the end is that it gives students the chance to experience what it's like going to a conference and presenting to a group of your peers,” said Myers.
REU student researchers solve real-world problems that can have a measurable global impact. Computer systems and data science are crucial areas of research with significant impact on healthcare, energy, manufacturing, finance, science and many other fields. Data science can be used to train algorithms to be more accurate than experienced doctors or to prevent catastrophic machine failures. This technology has also become a core tool for detecting and preventing cyberattacks and fraud.
Past research opportunities at Rice have included designing and implementing new machine learning algorithms, applying machine learning algorithms to solve specific problems and developing methods to manage huge data sets. Systems projects could include designing and implementing new networking algorithms, new computer architectures or software systems.
"The REU is driven by the belief that if we give students the opportunity to do cutting-edge research for a summer, it increases the likelihood that they will become tomorrow's technological innovators and leaders,” said Jermaine. “We hope it will increase the chance a participant eventually obtains a PhD or starts up a technology company.”
2022 Rice REU intern Olivia Ellie Fassman describes her experience with the program as providing her with the “confidence to conduct research in a university setting that reaffirmed her plans to pursue a PhD (in computer science).” The Cornell University undergraduate – a double major in Math and Computer Science – conducted her research in the lab of Dean and Professor Luay Nakhleh with direct supervision from Huw Ogilvie, assistant research professor of computer science.
Fassman is grateful to the REU for organizing seminars and workshops where she learned about the practical logistics of applying to graduate schools which she found to be “extremely helpful.” She is currently in the process of applying to doctoral programs.
In considering the success of past REU participants, Myers said, “They rose to the challenge! All of them learned a lot and were able to accomplish significant research. They all did something worth talking about, really developed skills – both in data science and in communication.”
“We are looking forward to working with a diverse group of bright students on real-life applications that can have a societal impact,” said Theodora Chaspari, REU site director and assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M College Station. “This program will provide a wonderful opportunity for undergraduate students to learn more about data science principles and applications,” said Chaspari.
“I’m very excited about this summer program,” adds Ghaffari. “Not only will this REU give our students a chance to work on research sponsored by Google, but it also gives our faculty a chance to work with talented undergraduate students without having to worry about acquiring funding to support them. The 10-week funded research should enable all students, even the ones that need to work to support themselves or their families.”
Beyond research and professional development, students also participate in evening events. “They really formed a cohesive group and built relationships,” said Myers of the last REU cohort. “After the poster session, they all went out to dinner. They’ve been rock climbing, bowling and boating. They had a lot of fun and had good energy. That's so important for community building and for them to rely on each other in the future. That's their support group.”
All three sites for the REU in Computer and Data Science are now accepting applications for Summer 2023. Applicants should bring unique perspectives and contribute to an equitable, inclusive and impactful community.
The program is open to students at colleges and universities in the United States. While programming experience is required, research experience is not. Part of the significant value of the faculty and PhD mentorship opportunity is that they train students and guide them through the research process.
Selected student participants will receive a $6500 stipend, $500 for travel expenses, and campus housing as appropriate. Those interested in applying for Rice’s REU in Computer and Data Science can apply through March 1, 2023 on the Rice REU in Computer and Data Science website. For questions, please contact Beth.Rivera@rice.edu.
Students wanting to apply to the Prairie View A&M REU in Computer and Data Science program should reach out to Dr. Noushin Ghaffari, and those interested in applying to Texas A&M’s program should contact Dr. Theodora Chaspari.