National Science Foundation funds NMSU computer-science research program for undergrads

By Billy Huntsman ‘16

A National Science Foundation-funded data-analytics project in New Mexico State University’s Department of Computer Science held its second summer program to allow undergraduate students to participate in research and spark interest in graduate work in computer science.

Funded in February 2016, the grant’s co-principal investigators are Huiping Cao and Jay Misra, both associate professors in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“This project is called a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site,” Cao says. “Its main focus is to involve undergraduate students and encourage them to pursue graduate studies rather than immediately going into the industry upon graduation. We also attempt to expose the students to the diverse applicability of big data analytics.”

Cao says the research of data mining has gradually matured in the past 20 years, but recently it has started to attract more attention to create a broader interdisciplinary research field.

“About seven years ago, the issue of big data emerged,” she says. “People realized that discovering useful knowledge from the big data has become more and more challenging. With sensing and monitoring becoming more pervasive, more and more fields like manufacturing, agriculture and climate monitoring are generating large amounts of data. There is a need for a new interdisciplinary workforce to meet the needs of data analytics in these diverse fields.”

In her independent research, as well as for the undergraduate research program, Cao studies and teaches her students to design data-mining algorithms and machine learning models that analyze data more effectively and efficiently. Misra works in the areas of cybersecurity and cyber physical systems, where large amounts of data are generated and require use of existing data-analysis technologies and creation of new ones.

This REU site was part of the first NMSU REU site grant.

Cao says many computer science majors finish their education at the undergraduate level and go directly into the industry – and for good reason: Computer science jobs are among the highest in demand in the country, as well as some of the best paid.

But computer science is a field that needs more academic research to enable more innovations in the industry, Cao said.

“It is important for students at undergraduate levels to see the truly interdisciplinary nature of learning and research in computer science,” she says. “We want the students to embrace it as early as possible. That will make them better computer scientists and engineers tomorrow. With this project, we are trying to create an environment for such an understanding.”

Cao says she and Misra were encouraged by computer science professor and now dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Enrico Pontelli, and were supported by about 10 professors in the Computer Science department and Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering to write the NSF grant.

The first research program took place in summer 2016. The second took place this summer, and the third – and the grant’s final – will take place next summer.

“We get applications from all over the country,” Cao says. “We accept 10 students and we choose them mainly based on their GPAs, but we also try to guarantee diversity. In computer science, we tend to have more men.”

NMSU biology professor selected to serve on special assignment at NSF

For the next year, Karen Mabry, associate professor in the Department of Biology in New Mexico State University’s College of Arts and Sciences, has accepted a temporary position as a program officer for the National Science Foundation’s Behavioral Systems Cluster in the Washington, D.C. area. 

The Behavioral Systems Cluster consists of the Animal Behavior Program, which supports research in the area of integrative animal behavior to understand how and why individuals and groups of animals do what they do in nature. 

Mabry’s research and that of the participants in her lab explores questions at the intersection of behavior and ecology, focusing on animal movement and social behavior. Mabry’s lab members work with several different animal species, including mice, kangaroo rats, dragonflies and songbirds. 

Her appointment was facilitated under the federal Intergovernmental Personnel Act. Such personnel assignments made under the act facilitate the beneficial sharing of personnel resources among government and universities by providing for the temporary assignments of personnel to and from the NSF and various state and local government agencies or institutions of higher education in instances where such assignments would be of mutual benefit to the organizations involved. 

For more about Mabry’s research, visit her lab website at

Huiping Cao (pictured) and Jay Misra, associate professors in the Department of Computer Science, are co-principal investigators for a National Science Foundation funded data-analytics project called a Research Experience for Undergraduates. The project hosts 10 undergraduate students from across the country for 10 weeks during the summer.

Applicants to the program do not need to be computer science majors already, but need to be enrolled undergraduate students. 

“This is totally a team effort,” Cao says. 

The 10 students stay at NMSU for 10 weeks and are guided by usually five volunteer professors, who specialize in different areas of big data research, including big data storage, analysis, transmission and visualization. 

Two NMSU students participated in the program’s first year: Ray A. Stubbs, computer science major, and Jacob Lee Fong-Mancha, electrical engineering major. Ian Getting, computer science major, represented NMSU in the summer of 2017. 

These volunteer professors guide the undergraduate students through the process of finding research topics, conducting literature review, implementing their research ideas, collecting research results and writing research papers to report their findings. 

The REU program also holds workshops related to writing research manuscripts, giving presentations on research topics and applying for fellowships – all key components to graduate school education. 

“In particular, if students are first-generation college students, they really have no idea where to go to get this information,” Cao says. “So we provide all that information for them.” 

The 10 students are provided with their own computers for the 10-week research, housing on the NMSU campus, meals, stipends and round-trip airfare or other travel costs. 

Cao said before the grant ends next year, the team plans to write a renewal grant in the hopes of continuing the summer REU site. 

“More than anything, I hope the students who participate in the REU research come away from it with the mindset that continuing to learn and grow is important,” Cao says.

Some notable National Science Foundation awards at NMSU

Towards Ubiquitous Adoption of Wireless Sensor Networks in Experimental Biology Research, $832,000 

Satyajayant Misra, computer science professor, principal investigator; Graciela Unguez, biology professor, co-principal investigator; Hong Huang, engineering professor, co-principal investigator 

This project will enable experimental researchers in labs and in the field to stimulate and monitor animals/specimens wirelessly in real-time and without human intervention, which will significantly improve understanding of animal responses to diverse stimuli. 

Undergraduate Research in Immigration Policy, $373,256 

Neil Harvey, government professor, principal investigator

The Undergraduate Research on Immigration Policy REU Site will provide undergraduate researchers with training in social science research methods related to issues facing the U.S.-Mexico border region, particularly in the El Paso/Las Cruces area. 

Sediment Recycling in Southern Cascadia: Insights from Seafloor Sediment and Mafic Volcanic Rock Geochemistry, $136,691 

Emily Johnson, assistant professor, geological sciences; Frank Ramos, associate professor, geological sciences 

This project studies the chemical composition of lavas erupted from volcanoes in the southern Cascade mountains in Oregon and California to better understand the physical processes affecting the molten rock gathering beneath the volcanoes. Variation in erupted material composition influences the nature of an eruption, with very gas-rich magmas tending to make very explosive eruptions, whereas gas-poor magmas have more docile, effusive eruptions. Results of this work will aid understanding of the style of anticipated future volcanism within the Cascades.