March 29, 2012 was a great evening for 40 young women from around Massachusetts. 

This was the evening that ITA Software by Google hosted the second annual Massachusetts Aspirations in Computing Affiliate Awards (MACAA) in partnership with the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT).  The event was hosted at the new Google headquarters in Cambridge at Kendall Square.
 
The award ceremony included addresses by Ruthe Farmer, NCWIT Director of Strategic Initiatives, and Julie Farago, Manager of Google+. 

Each award recipient was presented with the Aspirations in Computing award for herself and her school.

A featured part of the evening was the presentation by Prof. Jesse Heines (Computer Science), who awarded $10,000 scholarships to three of the 40 Aspirations in Computing recipients. These scholarships will be disbursed should the recipients come to UMass Lowell and remain in good academic standing. 

These scholarships not only recognize the young women’s achievements to date, but also encourage them to apply to UMass Lowell and enhance our programs with their energy and creativity.
 
The three women receiving the scholarships are:

  • Elizabeth Wu, a junior at AMSA Charter School (Marlborough, MA)
  • Ramya Ravindrababu, a junior at Shrewsbury Senior High (Shrewsbury, MA)
  • Serena Thomas, a junior at Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School (North Brookfield, MA)

We offer all three students our congratulations on their achievements, and we wish them the best in their future careers!

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(L-R): Elizabeth Wu, Ramya Ravindrababu, Serana Thomas, and Prof. Jesse Heines.
On February 9, 2012, Vitaliy Shkolnik successfully defended his Master’s thesis, entitled “Purine Metabolite Effects on Growth and Oxidative Signaling in Plants.” His work was conducted in the Department of Biological Sciences at UMass Lowell.

Shkolnik’s work was advised by Dr. Deane Falcone, and supported in part with funding from a grant from Syngenta Biotechnology, a major plant biotechnology research and development firm.

Shkolnik’s research employed the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana with which the Falcone Lab had discovered a unique metabolite signaling system that appears to prime plants to better tolerate stresses such as heat and drought. Major insight into the metabolic changes within the plant was recently unveiled in work in the same lab by graduate student Patrizia Stalder, who completed her PhD in August 2011.

The investigations described in Stadler’s dissertation served as the background for Shkolnik to further dissect possible mechanisms in the stress-tolerant line. Because drought is the cause of up to 50% crop yield losses in agriculture, the work is significant as an enabling technology. The prospect of using such technology in crops is underscored by the interest and support from industry.

Shkolnik’s research focused on investigating the effects of purine metabolites implicated in promoting enhanced growth and tolerance. His work employed developing plant cell cultures to test whether reactive oxygen species were involved in signaling once changes in purine levels were triggered in response to stress, a finding also stemming from Stadler’s PhD research.

The results showed that exogenously provided purines can induce increases in reactive oxygen species and so may be a component of cellular signaling which induces stress tolerance in plants.

Shkolnik also identified an additional metabolite that increases stress tolerance likely by functioning as an antioxidant.

Shkolnik’s thesis readers were Pete Gaines and Michael Graves, both of the Department of Biological Sciences, UMass Lowell.

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Visual phenotype of Arabidopsis thaliana wild-type (WT) and the stress-tolerant oxt1 lines grown under normal and oxidative stress conditions. Left two plates contain normal, non-oxidative stress agar medium (½ MS).  Right two plates contain chemical inhibitors to induce oxidative stress (AT/BSO).  Lower two plates contain a purine (0.4 mM adenosine).  Each plate contains wild-type plants on the upper half and oxt1 on the lower half.  Plants were grown for 21 days under standard conditions.

On November 15, 2011, Andrew Hoell successfully defended his PhD dissertation, entitled “Aspects of Oceanic Forcing of Drought over Southwest Asia and the United States.”  His work was conducted in the department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and his PhD will be awarded by UMass Lowell’s School of Marine Sciences. Hoell’s work was advised by Prof. Matthew Barlow, and supported with funding from NSF and NOAA.

Hoell focused on understanding the exceptionally severe drought that affected much of the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes during 1998–2002, with maxima over Southwest Asia and the United States. Previous research had suggested that the oceans played an important role in the hemispheric drought.

In his research, Hoell examined the regional and hemispheric circulation response to tropical Indo-west Pacific Ocean convection, for both Southwest Asia and the United States. He studied the relative importance of individual sea surface temperature areas in causing precipitation in the United States.

Hoell developed a linear regression model, and demonstrated good correspondence between the model and measured precipitation in the Southwest and Southeast United States. But the model was not able to reproduce precipitation variability over the Northwest and Central United States, especially Texas.

Hoell’s thesis readers were Joshua Qian (UMass Lowell), Frank Colby (UMass Lowell), and Ellen Douglas (UMass Boston).

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Enhanced Indian Ocean precipitation persisted for almost the entire 2007–2008 season in association with severe drought over Southwest Asia. However, a period of suppressed Indian Ocean precipitation during January 2008 reversed the pattern, resulting in damaging floods in the midst of a season long drought.


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Andrew Hoell and Prof. Matthew Barlow share a moment during a classroom conversation.
The Colleges of Sciences and Engineering held “Women in Technology Day” for the first time at UMass Lowell.The event was held on Sunday October 23, 2011 and followed the university’s Fall Open House. It brought together about 60 female high school students and their families for a series of conversations with current students in the two Colleges, recent alumnae, and women faculty.

The event began with lunch and three speakers. Prof. Holly Yanco (Computer Science) described her work developing search-and-rescue robots and robots for health care applications. Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney described the university’s long-standing commitment to academic quality, its new academic buildings and on-campus housing options, and its initiatives to create more small classes and engage students in experiential learning.  

The invited keynote speaker, Mary Beth Smrtic, then told her personal story of being interested in the sciences since high school, majoring in computer science, and joining the business world. She began her career at Lotus (now part of IBM), and focused on helping businesses make sense of data. After working at Lotus, she co-founded a startup company which developed and marketed unique business intelligence software tools. The company was ultimately sold to Dunn and Bradstreet. After having children, she enrolled in UMass Lowell as a doctoral student. Ms. Smrtic is now pursuing work on visual analytics—discovering new ways to help people make sense of data, including data for medical diagnoses.

After the lunch, the guests were split into two groups. The high school students left for a series of three small-group panel conversations—with current female students in the Sciences and Engineering Colleges, with recent alumnae of UMass Lowell, and with new faculty in the two Colleges.

During this time, the parents stayed in Cumnock for a series of presentations. This program included introductions to the two Colleges, information about UMass Lowell’s service learning and on-campus research opportunities, and the honors program. Also, current students Heather Byrne (Computer Science) and Allison Fidler (Plastics Engineering) described how they came to major in their technical fields, and their experiences at the university. (A copy of the whole program is available here.)

Women in Technology Day was organized by the Associate Deans in the two Colleges—Fred Martin (Sciences) and David Kazmer (Engineering)—with assistance from the university's Admissions office. The initial inspiration for the event came from a WomenTech Educators Training that Martin attended in May 2011 with support from the Commonwealth Alliance for Information Technology (CAITE).

After the training, Martin and Kazmer worked together to design the event. Support for UMass Lowell’s Women in Tech Day was provided by the Provost’s Office.

The event was considered a great success by all. Afterward, Dr. Moloney thanked Mary Beth Smrtic for “providing such a warm and personal perspective” in her talk, and alumna Danielle Niles said, “The students were fantastic and I really believe they got a lot out of the event.”

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(L-R) Prof. Holly Yanco (Computer Science), keynote speaker Mary Beth Smrtic (PhD candidate, UMass Lowell Biomedical Engineering and Biotechnology program), and Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney.

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Guests seated for lunch at Cumnock Hall during Dr. Moloney's remarks.

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(L-R) Panel of recent alumnae: Molly Clay (Chem. Eng., ’11), Nicole Rondeau (Mech. Eng., ’10), Caryn McCowan (Biology, ’11),  Amanda Kleschinsky (Env. Eng., ’10), Danielle Niles (Atmosph. Sci., ’06), June Odongo (Comp. Sci., ’05), and Nicole Sambursky (Chem. Eng., ’10).

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(L-R) Prof. Cindy Chen (Computer Science) facilitates questions during panel with current students: Meghan Brooks (Chem. Eng, ’12), Stephanie Quintal (Math. Sci., ’13), Krithika Manohar (Comp. Sci., ’13), and Erin Webster (Comp. Eng., ’12).

Profs. Fred Martin (Computer Science) and Michelle Scribner-MacLean (Graduate School of Education) were guests at the Fifth Annual River Day, hosted by Congresswomen Niki Tsongas on September 15, 2011.

Martin and Scribner-MacLean joined Rep. Tsongas on the banks of the Concord River to describe their new four-year, $1.3M NSF award to create an internet-based platform, dubbed iSENSE, which will engage students in data-intensive science inquiry. Working with a number of school systems in the Merrimack Valley, Martin and Scribner-MacLean will support teachers in integrating the internet-based technology into their science instruction. Machine Science Inc., of Cambridge, MA, is a grant partner, and will involve schools in the Boston area in project work.

The grant also includes a partnership with the Tsongas Industrial History Center and the National Park Service. Martin and Scribner-MacLean will work with staff at these two institutions to develop a new version of their River As A Classroom field trip, which brings middle- and high-school students onto the Merrimack River to study water quality. Students and teachers who participate in the new river-based field trip will use the project’s “iSENSE” technology to record, visualize, and discuss river water quality measurements.

At the River Day event, Martin and Scribner-MacLean had the opportunity to present their work to the Lock Masters, a Lowell-based volunteer group who operates the centuries-old canal locks system in the city, and high school students from the Spindle City Corp, who volunteer their service for beautification projects in the city.

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(L-R) Prof. Fred Martin, U.S. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, and Prof. Michelle Scribner-MacLean on the banks of the Concord River behind the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. For more information about Martin and Scribner-MacLean’s new science education award, see this story.
Physics doctoral student Andrew Balchunas presented new work, Optical Spectroscopy of Candidate X-ray Binaries in the Starburst IC 10 at the American Astronomical Society’s High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) meeting in Newport, RI on September 7, 2011. Balchunas worked with Dr. Silas Laycock of the Physics and Applied Physics Department, and undergraduates Rigel Cappallo and Kate Oram, who are co-authors on the study.

The poster reported on the optical spectra of 25 stars that are associated with X-ray emission seen by the Chandra X-ray Observatory (which is an orbiting observatory operated by NASA). Although ranking among the most luminous stars in existence, the stars lie in a galaxy 2 million light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. Consequently the stars studied are about 15 million times fainter than the limit of human vision. Collecting enough of their distant light to disperse into a spectrum was a job for Chandra’s giant 8-meter Gemini telescope.

By measuring the doppler shift of spectral lines in each star, Laycock and Balchunas were able to prove that most of the X-ray stars lie in the galaxy IC10, which is rushing towards our own Milky Way at 340 km/s. (No cause for alarm, 2 million lightyears is a very very long way away!) At this huge distance, the only objects luminous enough to be visible in X-rays are X-ray Binaries (XRBs).

When one member of binary star system goes supernova, the survivor can suddenly find itself with a black hole or neutron star for a partner. The companion continues shedding material in a stellar wind (as all stars including our Sun, do to varying extent), and some of this matter gets dragged onto the compact object by gravity. As the gas spirals into the strong gravitational field, it is heated to millions of degrees by friction, releasing huge amounts of energy across the electromagnetic spectrum, but mostly in X-rays.

The X-ray binary phenomenon is dramatic, but very short-lived, which presents an intriguing way to probe the evolution of stars and galaxies. Laycock’s team is studying this particular galaxy because it contains the youngest and most massive stars. The basic idea is to discover how its XRBs differ from those in other older galaxies. For example, is there a higher rate of black hole binaries, or, are more massive stars involved, are their orbits tighter?

In addition to presenting the UMass Lowell astronomy group’s poster, Balchunas listened to talks by leading astronomers, and had the pleasure of meeting the author of the textbook he is studying in Dr. Laycock's Astronomy & Astrophysics I course this semester. “The highlight was probably hearing the latest cosmology findings on the dark-energy driven expansion of the universe, from supernova studies,” said Balchunas.

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Gemini optical spectrum of one suspected X-ray binary. It is a hot, luminous supergiant shedding gas that likely fuels the neutron star or black hole companion. The emission lines are evidence of a powerful outflow. The inset shows the line is doppler shifted by about 340 km/s, placing it in the starburst galaxy.

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Gemini image of Starburst IC10 galaxy with positions of X-ray stars marked.
On September 2, 2011, JiSun Im successfully defended her doctoral dissertation in the Department of Chemistry, entitled “Chemiresistors based on thiol-functionalized gold nanoparticles, metal oxides, and their composites for the detection of toxic chemicals.”

Dr. Im’s research was conducted under the supervision of Professor James Whitten. With funding from the Army Research Laboratory, her work focused on developing chemical sensing materials for the detection of toxic chemicals, including volatile organic compounds, explosives, and nerve agents.

During her five-year graduate career at UMass Lowell, Im spearheaded the development of a portable prototype sensor system, nicknamed the “Mini-Mutt.” This instrument uses nano-particles and electrically conducting polymers to detect and identify chemical vapors. A video story about the Mini-Mutt is presently online at www.uml.edu/research.

Dr. Im has accepted a postdoctoral research position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Dr. JiSun Im (left) and Dr. James Whitten (Professor and Chair, Department of Chemistry)

Prof. Jesse Heines (Computer Science) is the leader of a multi-departmental UMass Lowell team that has been awarded $450K from the National Science Foundation for their project, Computational Thinking through Computing and Music. Profs. Gena Greher and Alex Ruthmann (both of UMass Lowell’s Music Department) are co-PIs on the award.

In “Performamatics,” an earlier NSF project led by Heines, a number of partnerships between computing and the arts were created.  As part of this work, Heines, Greher, and Ruthmann developed an interdisciplinary undergraduate course, Sound Thinking, which has been offered at UMass Lowell for each of the last three years.

Building on this work, the new award focuses on ways to engage both computing, music, and students of other disciplines in “computational thinking,” an emerging idea in computer science education.

In the new project, the faculty team will leverage the natural relationship between music and computing to teach computational thinking concepts across the undergraduate curriculum, including both introductory general education courses, and discipline-specific music and computing courses at more advanced levels.

The team will also lead workshops to share their approaches with undergraduate faculty across the United States.

For more, please see UMass Lowell's eNews article, New Curriculum Combines Computing and Music, and the project web site, performamatics.org.

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(L-R) Profs. Jesse Heines (Computer Science), Gena Greher (Music), and Alex Ruthmann (Music).

The College’s “Summer Co-ops in Sciences” (SCOOPS) program supported seven students in research positions working in Computer Science, Biology, Marine Sciences, and Physics.

  • Erik Castine worked with Prof. Byung Kim (Computer Science) on bioinformatics and genetic analysis.  Working in the Python language, Erik wrote an algorithm to count up the number of times each codon occurs in a specific DNA sequence.
  • Michael Stowell and Jeremy Poulin worked with Prof. Fred Martin (Computer Science) on Android mobile phone technologies.  They developed and submitted an entry to the City of Boston's challenge to algorithmically identify pot-holes from data sets collected on Android phones. (They'll find out later this fall whether their entry was selected for a cash prize.)
  • Meghan Burke worked with Prof. Michael Graves (Biology) on projects involving eukaryotic green algae. She learned how to dissect freshwater snails in order to isolate a symbiotic ciliate that lives inside the snail, and helped Prof. Graves’ group prepare an algae growth medium and inoculate and maintain the algae cultures.
  • Dominic Scarano worked with Prof. Robert Gamache (School of Marine Sciences). He helped create a database of all measured collision-broadened line shape parameters for carbon dioxide. The database will be used to test theoretical calculations, and for the reduction of data from satellite missions, such as GOSAT (The Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite), OCO (Orbiting Carbon Observatory), IASI (Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer).
  • Joe Beagly and Trevor-Max Smith worked with Gregg Parker (Physics). They worked at the particle accelerator facility, and assisted full-time students on a number of projects, including the Radiation Safety Group, which performed actual sampling and testing.
In addition to the professional experience in research labs, students also got to know the University and campus life, and made friends.  As Erik Castine described it, “I made friends here, I met the staff, and I got used to dorm life with my roommates Joe and Trevor. I honestly don’t feel like an incoming freshman any more. I feel like the summer program was basically a semester. I can’t imagine anything that could’ve helped me more than taking this program, and I can’t wait for the school year to start."
 
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College of Sciences 2011 SCOOPS students. L-R (back row) Dominic Scarano, Trevor-Max Smith, Erik Castine, Michael Stowell; (front row) Joseph Beagly, Meghan Burke, and Jeremy Poulin.
Prof. Xinwen Fu of Computer Science was awarded a grant entitled “Membership Inference in a Differentially Private World and Beyond” from NSF’s Trustworthy Computing program. The award is a great boost to the security program of the Computer Science Department and will strengthen its national status in related fields.

The award funds a three-year research agenda among three universities—George Washington University, Towson University, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The overall award totals $495K and UMass Lowell’s share is $166K.

The objective of the research project is to systematically understand, evaluate and contribute to the problem of membership inference in aggregate data publishing, which is a generic, novel, and dangerous privacy threat in a wide variety of real-world applications.

The central idea to be developed for addressing the problem of membership inference is an information-theoretic model of privacy disclosure as a noisy communication channel. Based on the channel coding theory and the recent advance in multi-input multi-output (MIMO) communication channels, the research will study novel techniques for membership inference and explores the corresponding privacy-preserving mechanisms.

The outcome of this research has broader impacts on the nation’s higher education system and high-tech industries. The prospect of sensitive membership information disclosure techniques and privacy-preserving techniques can help the providers of aggregated data publishing, including national health organizations, Internet security service providers, and others to secure their published data.

Prof. Fu is a member of the Computer Science department’s Center for Network and Information Security (CNIS). His research focuses on network security and privacy, network and computer forensics, and distributed systems.

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Prof. Xinwen Fu (Computer Science)

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