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Research leads undergrads to prestigious conference in Turkey

Yasin Silva, Jason Reed, Spencer Pearson
September 19, 2012

For applied computing majors Jason Reed and Spencer Pearson, the combination of a love of computer science, a strong work ethic, and the NCUIRE (New College Undergraduate Inquiry and Research Experiences) program is a mixture that produced the opportunity to travel to Istanbul, Turkey, to make presentations at one of the world’s top conferences in databases research.

The two students are pursuing the bachelor's degree in applied computing through the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences (MNS) in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, the core college on the West campus.

New College students who successfully complete the competitive application process to participate in NCUIRE earn a stipend while working with a faculty member on a research project, gaining valuable research skills and receiving financial support as they pursue their bachelor’s degrees.

Reed and Pearson both are involved with NCUIRE projects focused on the increasingly important field of data processing and analysis. Each is working in collaboration with Yasin Silva, assistant professor of applied computing. Their projects focus on the design, implementation and application of an operation known as a Similarity Join, which is used to analyze large data sets.

“Similarity Join is one of the most useful data processing and analysis operations,” Silva said. “It retrieves pairs of similar data elements, such as similar images or similar student names. Similarity joins are extensively used in multiple application domains like data cleaning, multimedia applications, and marketing analysis.

“Internet companies, for instance, collect massive amounts of data and can use similarity queries to gain valuable understanding of the use of their services, including identifying customers with similar buying patterns and generating recommendations.”

Reed’s NCUIRE project considers the design and implementation of the Similarity Join operation on cloud computing systems, while Pearson aims to implement Similarity Joins in database systems. Pearson has actually started on his second NCUIRE project, for the 2012/13 academic year. He and Reed conducted 2011/12 projects that resulted in the opportunity to make presentations at the International Conference on Very Large Databases (VLDB) and the VLDB International Workshop on Cloud Intelligence, respectively, last month in Istanbul.

“The trip was a great experience,” Reed said. “It generated a mix of many different emotions and feelings – exhilaration at being able to present a project that I have spent a lot of time and effort into developing, nervousness at potentially making a fool of myself in front of some very smart people, and relief when I didn’t.

“Being at the conference gave us the chance to talk with others working in research and on topics related to what we are working on. Being able to meet some of the people face to face who have written works that we have been reading is also very exciting. It’s really a unique experience that most undergrads don’t get to enjoy,” Reed said.

Added Pearson, “It was a bit tough getting the hang of doing the presentations at the start, but after presenting to a few people it got much easier. When I ended up presenting to people who were really interested in our work, the presentation turned into more of a long conversation. These were really the most interesting and fun parts of the presentation, where I was able to meet other researchers and learn about some of the work they were doing in related areas.

“Getting an opportunity to work closely with a professor on interesting topics through NCUIRE has been one of the best parts of my time at the West campus,” said Pearson, who expects to complete his bachelor’s degree in 2014. “The NCUIRE projects I’ve worked on have been great for honing my skills as a programmer, as they are challenging and have required me to deal with problems I haven’t had to handle before or in class. Most importantly, though, they have given me real experience with how the research process works and what it takes to actually undertake large, complex projects.”

Reed, who will graduate in December, strongly encourages his fellow New College students to take advantage of the opportunities NCUIRE provides.

“The NCUIRE program has encouraged professors to work with undergraduate students and expose them to research projects that most undergrads never get to see,” Reed says. “This allows them to see what is out there and really be exposed to a world of opportunities that they might never see unless they went into graduate studies. It also allows students to directly apply what they are learning in their classes and see real-world applications of this knowledge.”

NCUIRE has supported 108 research experiences for undergraduates since the program’s inception in January 2011. Out of these experiences, 35 off-campus presentations and 23 peer-reviewed publications have resulted. Along with MNS, students in New College’s two other schools – Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies (HArCS), and Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS) – are selected to participate in NCUIRE projects.

Silva has high praise for Reed and Pearson, describing them as dedicated researchers. “It is rare for undergraduates to co-author papers that are accepted for presentation at a top international conference in database systems like VLDB,” he says.

The students took different paths to New College and the West campus. Pearson moved to the Valley at age 13 from Washington state and is a 2010 graduate of Ironwood High School in the Peoria Unified School District.

“I was able to take advantage of the wonderful computer science program they have at Ironwood,” Pearson said. “I’ve always been interested in computers and computer programming. Both my parents have been involved in the computer industry, and they have always tried to contribute to my love of programming.”

Reed, a non-traditional age student, is completing the bachelor’s degree he originally started at the University of Arizona. He spent several years working in the information technology field before deciding to complete his degree. A few visits to Silva’s office led to him and Silva to collaborate on an NCUIRE project.

“From that day forward my life changed,” Reed says. “We decided to work on this project, and Dr. Silva had me reading all sorts of research papers and learning new systems. The NCUIRE project became my passion and I gained a lot of pleasure from working on it.”

The two students share a common goal of pursuing a doctorate in computer science. “Their participation in VLDB will be invaluable to them as they apply to graduate programs,” Silva says. “I am sure this experience has been an energizing event that will motivate Jason and Spencer to keep working hard in their research endeavors.”