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Sophomores turn enthusiasm for research into year-long extracurricular project funded by CIS Microgrants Program

Apr. 22, 2013
Amy Mednick

Squeezing in time between classes and convening late at night in a lab at the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science (CIS), a group of sophomores is harnessing their powers of innovation, creativity, and independence to design and build a volumetric display system in time for Imagine RIT. These six budding scientists got the bug to “do” science during their­ Freshman Imaging Project class and resolved to extend the research and their collaboration into their sophomore year. The team—in cooperation with six software engineering students—will present a working prototype of their volumetric display of three-dimensional data at this year’s festival on May 4.

Entering the lab inhabited by the student-led team, the creative energy is palpable. Laptops and papers tile the large, round table, the whiteboard is filled with calculations, and a “12  days” countdown to Imagine RIT is posted in the corner of the board. Equipment abounds and a tall cart houses the volumetric display designed to project an image that is truly three dimensional.  When the students begin to talk, they obviously know each other well, respecting others’ voices even as they finish each other’s sentences and piggy-back on ideas. “We work really well as a group together and I think this is why we did this,” says Brooke Saffren, of Doylestown, PA, who is a biomedical science major and imaging science minor.

 “We all share the same direction,” adds Doug Scott Peck, an imaging science major, from Syracuse. “Ultimately, we all have the same goal and respect each other’s opinion. That mentality was formed in the freshman imaging project.”

During the yearlong freshman project, students are challenged to work collaboratively, in a student-centered, lab-based environment, to research, design, and build a functional imaging system in time to exhibit at Imagine RIT. At key points during the year, the team presents their plans and progress to a group of faculty evaluators from across campus and at the end of the year the students unveil the finished system at Imagine RIT. The project, which invariably creates a strong bond between the students, replicates the professional interactions and assignments that they might face in future careers.

“You can be super smart in academia, but if you can’t work with a group of people and take constructive criticism and give constructive criticism, then you can’t apply that knowledge in a coherent way,” says Cicely DiPaulo, an imaging science student from Pittsford, NY.

Last year, Freshman Imaging Project coordinators, CIS Associate Director Joe Pow and Dr. Maria Helguera, professor of imaging science, tasked students with responding to a need for an imaging system that would allow physicians to assess whether individual patients would respond well to intubation. Intubation involves inserting a ventilation tube into the patient’s mouth and trachea during general anesthesia. “We had to build a system that would attempt to eliminate physician error.  Before, whether or not someone could be intubated was done by doctor’s determination,” says Megan Iafrati, an imaging science student, of Greece, NY.

University of Rochester physician Dr. Jacek Wojtczak and postdoctoral researcher Dr. Bo Hu asked the class to create an imaging system that could use quantitative measurements of a person’s facial features to assess a patient’s susceptibility to intubation. The team of students developed a system that would project black and white striped patterns of different widths onto a patient’s face. They then developed software that would reconstruct a three-dimensional image—what the students described as a “point cloud”— from the observed deformation of the patterns. The point cloud could then be used to generate a lifelike 3D image of the subject.

“At Imagine RIT last year, I spoke with a woman who couldn’t be intubated. She had a really bad experience, so she was excited that we were doing this project,” Iafrati says.

“Our favorite thing about this project was that as freshman coming right out of high school, we were given the responsibility to do a real project helping physicians with something that they actually need,” DiPaulo says.

At the time, DiPaulo felt that she did not want the experience to end, and she decided to do something about it.

DiPaulo approached some of her fellow students about the idea of continuing the experience in their sophomore year. Saffren, Iafrati, Peck, imaging science student Rose Rustowiscz, and Sean Cooper, who is a Motion Picture Sciences major, all expressed interest in the project. Over the summer, the students attempted to set up the project as a class, which proved too complicated. At the last minute, the team applied for and received a $3,800 CIS microgrant to fund supplies. By November, CIS had provided a lab space and the project was underway. Later in the year, a group of software engineering students joined the team.

Rustowicz, from Cheektowaga, NY, says they were able to succeed with the freshman project even though they had little experience with research and development because they were not afraid to ask questions and seek guidance from faculty, staff and students. “We knew what we didn’t know,” she says.

The sophomores this year say they had a better sense of how to organize the project, including drawing up a schedule with specific milestones. Each week they meet for an hour and hold a two-hour workshop in addition to their independent work on the project.

“The team has demonstrated fantastic organization, their goals are quite clear and they have managed to stay on schedule,” Professor Helguera says. “It is incredibly motivating, as an instructor, to walk in that room and watch them work, discuss, and above all, enjoy themselves.”

After a year of effort and input from their engineering teammates, they now have a functioning system. In the students’ words, the system is “composed of a projector that displays 96 unique images of the object being displayed onto a mirror set to spin at a certain number of rotations per second. The synchronization between these two factors is what allows the display to be proportionally correct as well as being able to be seen from different viewpoints.”

The students are planning to give a presentation about their volumetric display at the Hawaii University International Education and Technology Conference this summer.

“When we started this, we weren’t completely lost like we were last year. I can’t put to words how helpful [the freshman imaging project was for us]. If you know generally how to attack a problem, then there is no reason it can’t be solved,” Cooper says.

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