Research

Consider the top 30 innovations in the last 30 years, and Tracy Camp will tell you that none of them would have happened without computer science. “Think of what computer science has done for our world,” says Camp, a computer science professor at Mines. “Online shopping, medical applications, robotic surgeries, DNA mapping—all that stuff has been created or vastly improved because of computer science.”

Camp came to Mines in 1998; since then she has moved up in her role from assistant to full professor. She currently teaches the introduction to programming course, Programming Concepts in C++. In her class, students develop a final project related to a topic they’re passionate about, such as a game or data storage utility.

Looking at Camp’s resume (25 pages of grants, awards, and publications), you might assume she knew at an early age that she wanted to be a teacher, but that wasn’t the case. Although she loved logic and math as a child, she didn’t have any interest in teaching. It wasn’t until she was ready to graduate from Michigan State University with her master’s degree in computer science that her parents encouraged her to pursue a PhD.

After receiving a PhD in computer science from the College of William and Mary, Camp began working at the University of Alabama. A few years later, she and her husband decided to move west, and Camp wanted to work at a smaller school. So, they pulled out a map of the United States, and Camp applied to four schools. Although she received three interview offers, she only accepted one of them: Mines.

When she’s not teaching, Camp is focused on three areas: technical research, educational research, and women in computing. In total, her research projects have received more than $20 million in external funding. She has been awarded more than 20 grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), including a prestigious NSF CAREER award.

Camp is an Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Fellow, and recently, she also became an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow for her contributions to wireless networking. “Within my research area, there are only eight women that are both ACM and IEEE fellows,” Camp said. “I am the first ACM fellow at Mines and the first IEEE female fellow at Mines. We need more!”

The lack of women in Camp’s field is something she works on here at Mines. “Research shows that a diverse team creates a better product, so we need diverse teams. And to accomplish that, we need more women at the table,” she said.

To that end, Camp works with the CRA-W (Computing Research Association—Women). She also serves as the faculty advisor for the ACM women’s student chapter at Mines, through which she founded “Discovering Technology,” an after-school STEM program for elementary school girls that includes computer science education. Approximately 300 girls in grades 3-6 visit Mines each semester to learn about a different science and engineering topic. The program has been so successful that Camp is expanding it to include a separate day for girls in grades 7-8.

“We’re currently at about 13 percent female computer science undergraduate students at Mines, which is a bit less than the roughly 15 percent national average,” Camp said. “My goal is to move Mines to 25 percent women in both the computer science major and the computer science minor by 2020.”

 

Contact:

Kathleen Morton, Digital Media & Communications Manager / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu

Travis Ramos, an environmental engineering student, was selected along with 21 undergraduates from diverse institutions to spend a fall semester as part of the study abroad program, Sea Education Association (SEA). Ramos spent six weeks onshore in the oceanographic research community of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, before spending another six weeks on a 135-foot tall vessel studying the sea creatures below him and traveling between the islands of New Zealand.

We asked Ramos about his experience at SEA, what he learned and what he has planned for his remaining time at Mines.

Why did you apply for Sea Education Association Semester?

I chose to apply for Sea Education Association (SEA) because I wanted a travel experience on top of an academic adventure. SEA offered a domestic component in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a premier scientific research community, and an international component sailing on a 135-foot tall ship. That combination, paired with the ability to earn academic credit, made SEA hard to ignore.

Why did you choose this particular program?

This particular program, The Global Ocean, tied together science, history, and leadership in a very attractive way that fit well into my environmental engineering track at Mines. Having the shore component first and then the sea component second also made sense to me from a learning progression standpoint. The opportunity to visit different parts of New Zealand through various port stops was also a factor.

What did you learn in Massachusetts?

In Woods Hole, Massachusetts we completed the shore component of the program. During the shore component we did our initial work for our research projects at sea. My project was based on ocean currents, seawater chemistry, and the bathymetry of the northeast waters of New Zealand. Throughout our classes, we focused on the Ocean Health Index (OHI)—a tool developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) to access the health of the world’s oceans annually, and prepared work to take with us to sea to gather data for the OHI. We also learned about ocean navigation, oceanography and sailing techniques. For all of the five classes we took onshore, we developed drafts of our papers and had to perform all our initial research, as there was no Internet access on the ship.

What was it like doing lab work on a research vessel?

Lab work on the research vessel was very demanding. The lab room was constantly swaying with equipment shifting and your balance was a challenge to maintain. But being able to process samples directly from the ocean next to you and see creatures under a microscope that you scooped out of the water literally minutes ago was thrilling. We would deploy meter, Neuston nets and the Hydrocast (big piece of equipment that would measure seawater chemistry parameters) during the day and in the middle of the night. The ocean was our lab and our ship was just a means to process anything we gathered. It was a blast having the opportunity to collect data in a way much different than I’ve ever done before.

What was it like studying with students from different schools?

In my program I was the only engineering student with everyone else majoring in fields ranging from environmental science to communications. I was able to bring an entirely different perspective to the group because of my academic background. At Mines, I’m used to constantly studying and doing schoolwork, which prepared me well for what was demanded of us at SEA. Most others were accustomed to different workloads, but they taught me to relax a little in my studies and enjoy the experience. It was great to have different backgrounds mix together to learn about different approaches to not only enjoying the SEA life, but also appreciating other opportunities of the academic experience.  

What kind of food did you eat on the ship?

The kitchen of the ship was known as the “galley,” which had a stewardess that did the cooking for the entire crew. Each student got the turn to be assistant steward for an entire day, helping the stewardess prepare all the food. When my turn came around, we made burritos for breakfast, Buffalo wings for lunch, and steak with mashed potatoes and salad for dinner. The typical meal schedule would consist of breakfast based on your “watch,” snack around 10 a.m., lunch based on your “watch,” snack around 3 p.m., dinner based on your “watch,” and then midnight snack prepared for each “watch.” We ate all sorts of things—from tuna poke to shakshuka (a dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers and onions)—it was always a surprise at mealtime. For Thanksgiving, we had a huge feast, with everyone contributing their favorite recipes as well as three whole turkeys for the crew and guests. I can say with certainty we did not go hungry on the ship.

What were some of the rewarding parts of the trip?

The most rewarding parts of the trip came with the small victories in integrating into the ship’s company. We had to learn how to tie knots useful for sailing, the locations of lines, names of sails, conduct boat checks, prepare weather and navigation reports for the ship, and perform oceanographic research all while attempting not to let seasickness get the best of us, balancing with the swaying seas, and managing our time with our demanding watch schedules. Being able to do these things not only individually, but also with others was definitely a challenge, but something that we all felt a reward in accomplishing. It was also rewarding to arrive at a port stop after working hard at sea and to take in the sights and get some well-deserved rest.

What challenges did you encounter?

By far the most difficult thing to get accustomed to on the ship were the watch schedules. Our ship’s crew was divided into three “watches”—A, B, and C—in which we took turns operating the ship through steering the helm, being on bow lookout, running boat and engine room checks, navigating, preforming lab research, and helping man the engine room. The watches would rotate through the shifts, each getting different times when their turn would come around. I always thought that “night watch” (1700-2100) was the most taxing, because then your next turn would be “morning watch” (0700-1200) and you would only realistically be operating at a maximum of six hours of sleep. Finding time to rest up was the real challenge, and I was constantly finding ways to sneak naps in throughout the day.

Other challenges included balancing our academic workload with the ship life and growing our “sea legs” (the ability to walk steadily on the deck of a boat or ship) during the first week onboard.

What did you learn in your research on the vessel?

Through the research we did onboard I realized how abundant our oceans really are. In our net tows we captured so many zooplankton that it gave a generous indication of the diversity and quantity of life in that region of the global ocean. We were also able to observe how water chemistry parameters were associated with productivity and abundance parameters—for example how water temperature was linked to chlorophyll-a concentrations.

My particular research project looked at how variations of water chemistry, bathymetry, water masses, and ocean currents were connected in the northeast Pacific Ocean region of New Zealand. My partner and I were able to use depth sensing programs and other interesting equipment onboard to collect and relate all the data. It was definitely a big learning curve but we were able to understand it all by the end with the help of the chief and assistant scientists.

What was your favorite place to travel and why?

My favorite port stop along the trip was at Bay of Islands in Russell, New Zealand. It was our first port stop of the trip, but it was nice to get on land for a little bit and stretch out our legs. The area has such a rich whaling and traditional Maori history and it was very apparent throughout both towns with museums, sculptures and community identity.

What wildlife did you see?

At sea we saw all sorts of mega fauna and zooplankton. There were birds such as shearwaters and albatrosses; fish such as Mola mola, pilot whales and tuna (which we caught a few of to eat); and zooplankton such as salps, crab larvae and jellyfish.

It was also breathtaking when we would have dolphins swim along with our ship and jump out of the water. But the thing I was most fascinated with was the bioluminescence of the plankton in the oceans at night. When the conditions were right at night, our ship would hit swells in the oceans and light up the water along with organisms that would be floating along. It was almost surreal to be out in the vast open ocean and yet be surrounded by so much life.

Do you think this experience will change your studies or experiences at Mines? 

This experience has certainly made me think about plenty of new things—from graduate school options in ocean engineering and oceanography to my passion for sailing. It was an adventure but also an academic challenge that pushed me to rely not only on myself, but my shipmates as well. I’m not sure if I would have gotten the same experience in such a dynamic environment anywhere else. It will give me an outlook at Mines to take everything in that I can, to not be afraid to rely on others, and to keep my head up through the hard times.

What do you have planned for this semester at Mines?

At Mines I plan to continue pursuing my environmental engineering degree. New experiences and this trip have also made me strongly consider double-majoring in civil engineering, so that is something I might soon turn my sights to as well. I also plan on continuing to be involved with Blue Key, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), the Harvey Scholars Program, and the Phillips 66 Shield Scholars Program—as well as exploring other clubs and organizations that interest me.

 

Contact:

Kathleen Morton, Digital Media & Communications Manager / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu

Santiago Gonzalez, a graduate student in computer science, started his undergraduate degree at Mines in 2010 at the age of 12. He is currently teaching the Mines course, Operating Systems, and getting ready to defend his thesis in November. Gonzalez is set to finish his master’s degree in December 2015.

We asked Gonzalez about his experience at Mines, what it's like to teach a 400-level course and what he plans to do after he graduates.

Why did you choose Mines?

It’s more that Mines chose me. I got in contact with Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Tracy Camp who is my advisor. She invited me to apply and come to Mines. Everything ended up working out really well.

Did anything surprise you about Mines after coming here?

I was super happy to be with a group of people that thought like me, very scientifically-minded and nerdy.

What’s your favorite spot on campus?

I’m not sure it’s as much a favorite spot as it is where I have to get my work done on campus, but the SINE (Sensing Imaging and Networking) lab in the Brown Building. It’s where I’m doing work for my thesis and getting it ready for my defense Nov. 16.

I spend about 30 hours a week there.

What else are you doing aside from defending your thesis and getting ready to graduate this December?

I’m taking a class this semester called Distributed Computing Systems with Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Associate Professor Qi Han.

I’m teaching CSCI-442 Operating Systems (OS), which is one of the computer science undergrad classes. That should keep me pretty busy.

Also, my advisor and I are thinking of publishing a paper from the results from my thesis.

What has been the best thing you’ve experienced at Mines?

I’ve really gotten an understanding of exactly how computers work and why they work the way they do. It’s not really just some magic box that does stuff when you type things in the keyboard. I think that’s one of the really cool things that has happened here.

What was your favorite project at Mines?

For my thesis, I had to develop some new geophysical sensing mote (hardware) for the SmartGeo research group.

Right now for Distributed Computing Systems, my partner and I are building a simulator to validate different computer systems in high radiation environments in space. We’re simulating a spacecraft around some body and all the different subsystems you would have like reaction wheels. We had an idea for how to make the spacecraft computer systems much more resistant to radiation without having to use any super fancy expensive hardware, just using redundancy with commercial systems. Probably a larger project than we should have chosen for that class, but it’s fun.

How did you choose that project?

The class is studying how to get a network of computers to accomplish some goal. So that goal could be storing data across a large number of computers so that it’s more reliable. Or in our case: spreading computation across several systems to make it more resistant to radiation. We were discussing a bunch of ideas and this evolved out of the discussion.

What has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced at Mines?

Physics I was so difficult. It’s a very demanding class. Conceptually, the material is pretty understandable. Physics I is basically mechanics—how things move given a system of things. If I have this book and I tilt it, how long will it take for something to slide down it? But then you start getting into the math and all of the work—it’s just a lot of work.

There’s definitely been tons of challenges, but nothing so insane that you couldn’t overcome it with tons of work.

How did you get involved in teaching?

Dr. Camp has been the professor who taught OS for the past decade here at Mines. She was busy with other work this semester, so she’s teaching another class this time. She invited me to teach the course, and thought it would be a fun experience for me.

What’s it like standing in front of the class instead of sitting as a student?

It’s really different. It’s interesting how different things are. You notice a bunch of things you wouldn’t notice otherwise.

I remember on the first few days, everything seemed super quiet so you try to talk faster to make it less quiet. It’s really interesting.

It’s really cool seeing how when you explain something, suddenly some students understand the material and they’re like, “Oh, OK!” Just being able to see them understand the material is really cool.

Do you think it makes you a better student having that other perspective?

It definitely makes me appreciate it more.

What’s your favorite thing about teaching here at Mines?

Since I’ve been teaching OS, I’ve changed the curriculum and projects a little bit. It’s fun thinking of new projects that students can do that will both be challenging and fun while still relevant to the class.

How do you balance teaching and schoolwork?

It’s one of the things I thought would be easier. It’s actually kind of challenging. You could devote so much time to the class, but ultimately you have to set a stopping point. Because you could either completely change everything (the entire curriculum) and that would take a really long time and you wouldn’t have time to dedicate to other things. But in general, I think I found a good balance.

If you could offer advice to a new student, what would you say?

Make sure you understand calculus because it will come up everywhere, even when you least expect it.

Persevere through everything. Mines is definitely demanding. Make sure you’re on top of everything instead of putting things off until the end. Just keep a good pace throughout the semester.

What are you up to this summer? Tell us about it.

I’ll be interning in a development position with Apple from January through August. I got the internship through someone that I met at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference this past summer. I was planning on applying anyway, but I got offered the internship. So that was cool, not having to worry about that.

What are your plans after Mines?

I will be pursuing a PhD, and am working on applications right now. My top two choices are MIT or Stanford. They are some of the best engineering universities in the world for computer science.

I know I don’t want to become a professor, but I’d like to work in industry. I’m not sure what I’d be doing; I haven’t thought that far ahead. It would be cool to work at SpaceX or something like that.

 

Contact:

Kathleen Morton, Digital Media & Communications Manager / 303-273-3088 / kmorton@mines.edu
Karen Gilbert, Director of Public Relations / 303-273-3541 / kgilbert@mines.edu

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