ASU engineering graduate refused to be statistic, powered up her career

August 29, 2014

Carrie Culp could have been a statistic: single mother of three, high school diploma, hard-working but hamstrung by a lack of education, hanging onto the lower rungs of the financial ladder.

She could have been a statistic, but it isn’t in her nature. “I always liked a puzzle,” she said. “I liked to put things together, to figure out how to make things work.” Carrie Culpat at work on her senior design project Download Full Image

So she figured out how to make her life work, going to community college, transferring to the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, earning bachelor and master’s degrees in electrical engineering through the accelerated program and landing an enviable job helping run the country’s power grid at Midcontinent Independent System Operator Inc.

She loves to tell her story to those coming behind her. Culp grew up in Buckeye, where her family worked on farms, chopping cotton and harvesting corn, working on tractors. When her parents got divorced, her mother worked four jobs to keep up with the bills, and Culp would pitch in and help with the custodial work.

She graduated from Buckeye Union High School, became a young mother and started doing office work. But it felt like a job with no future, and she knew she should go back to school.

She signed up for math and English classes at Estrella Community College and engineering classes at Glendale Community College. She and her kids moved into her mom’s house, and she re-engineered the Arizona room to become a bedroom and bathroom, rewiring the electricity by herself and putting in plumbing with the help of her uncle, a master plumber.

“The first couple semesters, I was part-time,” she said. She got her A+ certification in computers and started working at the Estrella Fitness Center. “I was doing a lot of coding. I’d get into a code warp, working on a problem, and I’d look up and it would be the next day. I didn’t like to let go of anything.”

But she also realized she liked working outside, like her dad. She wanted to be more than a computer technician. So she got connected with the Motivated Engineer Transfer Students, or METS program, which connects community college students to the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

She was offered a scholarship, enrolled at ASU, connected with others who had transferred and started volunteering to set up outreach visits for other Estrella students. It eventually became a job as an outreach coordinator for the program. In the meantime, she worked with QESST, the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies research center, focusing her studies on solar energy.

She did internships, joined the Society of Women Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Eta Kappa Nu honor society. She also worked with the Engineering Projects in Community Service, helping ship medical supplies to developing countries through Project C.U.R.E.

She was selected for a research position with North Carolina State in their “Engineering the Grid” program, and received a scholarship from the IEEE Power and Energy Society in the inaugural round of the Scholarship Plus Initiative, which was established to attract high-quality engineering students to the power and energy field.

“I got a lot of support, especially from the faculty,” she said. “I had a good study group of guys who are all friends.”

She was one of only two females in her senior classes, and thinks females avoid engineering because of misconceptions. “It’s not what people think,” she said. “It’s not just crunching numbers and wearing hard hats all day. Engineers help solve problems.”

Culp landed a job working for MISO after interning there last summer. The company describes itself as “an essential link in the safe, cost-effective delivery of electric power across much of North America.”

“It’s where transmission, generation and utilities all meet,” Culp said. “They help figure out demand and loads. Someone will say, ‘We’re going to shut down this coal-fired plant,’ and they will say, ‘Well, that means part of Michigan will go black.’”

Culp is now working with the newly integrated MISO offices in New Orleans.

“There are a lot of transmission upgrades needed in the southern region, and part of my job is to analyze and model the proposed projects,” Culp said. “I have to evaluate all the projects proposed for my region, reject ones that are not beneficial in the long term, further investigate those that have long-term potential and sometimes propose my own project solution for stakeholders to consider.

“Some of the projects I design or verify are worth billions of dollars, so it is important to get the best benefit to cost.”

ASU professors win funding to further national defense research

August 29, 2014

Three professors in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University have been selected for awards through the 2014 Defense University Research Instrumentation Program.

The program provides funding for major equipment necessary for ongoing or new research relevant to the U.S. Department of Defense. Subbarao Khambhampati Download Full Image

Subbarao Kambhampati, a professor of computer engineering, received about $150,000; Yong-Hang Zhang, a professor of electrical engineering and associate dean for research, received about $135,00; and Dijiang Huang, an associate professor of computer science received nearly $100,000.

Subbarao Kambhampati
School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering

Kambhampati, whose research is focused on robots and humans working cooperatively on problem-solving, will use the funds for new robots.

ASU currently has several NAObots, which are autonomous, programmable humanoid robots. Six of them are used on ASU’s robot soccer team, and one in Kambhampati’s lab. Kambhampati plans to purchase two or three new humanoid robots, including an unbounded robot, the latest technology.

The new robots will use wheels, rather than feet, moving more quickly and making demonstrations more engaging. In addition, the unbounded robot has an advanced, intricate arm that more closely mimics a human arm and its multiple number of degree movements.

“It allows more freedom in grasping and lifting,” Kambhampati said.

The robots will help with research Kambhampati is doing with support from grants – two from the U.S. Office of Naval Research and one from the U.S. Army Research Office.

One example of cooperative problem-solving between humans and robots would be a search-and-rescue mission in which a human commander, in a remote, safe location, has wireless communication with a robot in a damaged building. The commander could give the robot goals, such as, “Look for injured people in this room,” or “Rendezvous in the corridor at this time.”

The robot, which would have access to domain models, including actions and preconditions, would have to use automated planning techniques to figure out what steps to take. It requires the robots to intelligently analyze the situation, moment to moment.

For example, in the search-and-rescue mission, the state of the building may be different from that shown in the map because walls may have collapsed and corridors may be blocked. Goals may come piecemeal or change based on the fluid situation, and the robot must decide which to prioritize.

Yong-Hang Zhang
School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

Zhang said his funding will be used to build more sophisticated and user-friendly materials and device-testing systems for infrared detector research, which is also supported by a Department of Defense Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative grant, and has defense and commercial application, such as night vision, security monitoring systems and biomedical imaging.

“If you are driving at night, infrared can help you see better,” Zhang said. “For example, if a deer is coming out of the woods, headlights don’t project well, and this can be a very dangerous situation.

“Infrared also would be useful during a dust storm or in fog.”

The new equipment would include a state-of-the-art setup for testing detectors at various temperatures, from room temperature to very low (minus 270 degrees Celsius), and an upgraded optical spectroscopy, which measures the optical spectrum from materials or light-emitting devices.

“Right now, if you want to take a spectrum, it takes 15 to 20 minutes,” Zhang said. “Our research requires us to take hundreds, so it can take forever.

“With the new equipment, we will be able to take one in less than 10 seconds, almost like a camera, so taking 200 spectra is not a big deal and can be done in a day.”

The equipment will give ASU unique capability, Zhang said, improving efficiency and raising the visibility of current and future research.

Dijiang Huang
School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering

Huang said his funding will be used to purchase communication devices, servers and a spectrum analyzer to create the Open Human-Robotic Mobile Networking and Security Testbed, a secure mobile network to interact with robots.

Huang said that researchers and students are more frequently using mobile applications to communicate with robots, and security is becoming even more important.

The equipment will support Huang’s ongoing research project, Traffic Analysis Models for Wireless Mobile Ad Hoc Networks, which establishes a user-friendly open MANET (mobile ad-hoc network) system for research and education.

“In the battlefield environment, soldiers need to establish ad-hoc networks with different requirements that could be changed based on mission goals,” Huang said. “Security protocols could protect soldier’s lives.”

And the networks could enhance civilian life, too.

“What we see in our next five to 10 years is more interaction between the physical world and our virtual life through web-based services,” Huang said. “Our mobile devices will be more intelligent and have more situational awareness. They will be able to sense where we are and whether something is happening there that we might be interested in, or provide help if we’re missing something.”

Huang said that as we have more of these virtual and physical life interactions, we must have secure, private applications.

“If our private data isn’t protected, people won’t be able to use these applications and devices. It’s a very critical issue.”