RTP STUDENT REPORTS

AKSH GARG

Picture of Aksh in front of the Leland Stanford Museum

Ideate. Prototype. Debug. Repeat.

These four words effectively summarize my perception of science research before diving into it, first at my school and then at SCAS RTP -- although admittedly in a manner far, far more robust, refined, and encapsulating than my 13-year-old self could have divined. 

In some respects, I congratulate my younger self for having the foresight to categorize research. In others, I often shake my head. You see, while ideation, prototyping, and debugging are core parts of any research endeavor, they fail to touch upon countless other defining portions of it: friendships, confidence-building, mentorship, falling, struggling, getting up, recovering, and presenting are some of the many other qualities that define a quality research experience. 

Alas, if only identifying the best parts about research was enough to get to that oneself. Unpromisingly, many high school students eschew science research, believing it's "voodoo," "beyond them," and "sophisticated." One unsuccessful cold outreach email to professors after another sure doesn't strengthen their morale any further either. 

But that itself is the true beauty of SCAS RTP. First, it positions you with the accreditation and backing often needed to secure lab positions. Second, it essentially compels you to bond with your mentor to work on and complete your project. Finally, it sequentially guides you on each step of the research journey, from experiment planning to paper and poster creation. Walking out of RTP, students have completed original research, prepared professional talks on it, and presented it to experienced individuals. If that's not impressive for a high school program, it's hard to say what is.

Yet, some incredulous readers might still ask for more. Well, lucky for them: RTP delivers once again. The top presenters from the annual SCAS RTP meeting are invited to present their work at the American Junior Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting, a meeting held in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting. Such a conference, in turn, opens unparalleled networking opportunities for students. From Bill Gates to distinguished Stanford Professors, there's no dearth of revolutionary individuals to meet because of SCJAS.

Let's get more specific. What did I do at SCAS RTP. Concisely put, I 1) Mathematically encoded & designed a 10,000+ parameter non-linear and non-convex model of UAVs providing wireless services to ground users in MATLAB. 2) Optimized the system via a synergy of convex and non-convex optimization approaches. 3) Designed a K-means algorithm to cluster users, Gaussian Mixture Modeling to approximate traffic flow, a genetic algorithm to initialize shortest flight paths, & sequential convex-optimization techniques to maximize data transfer. 4) Increased throughput (communication rates) by 33.57%, 87.4%, 53.2%, 600% for 1,2,3, & 17 UAV cases, respectively. 

I was also selected to present my work at the AJAS meeting and am looking forward to participating next year! (And by the way, did I forget to mention, they equipped me with the tools to do all this from the comfort of my home during COVID-19)

While the specifics of a research project might differ from student to student, I am confident that the positivity of the experience remains constant. RTP teaches us "how" to think. In a world that's rapidly progressing towards quickly moving on to the next quick acceleration tool or software, I find this in and itself an invaluable component of RTP. This characteristic equips students to succeed not only in the present but also in the future when the technological landscape may have transformed, but the core ideas behind research wouldn't have. 

RTP was one of my high school journey highlights, and I often wish I had started it before my senior year of high school. And I strongly recommend other high schoolers to consider applying for it. Finally, keep exploring, innovating, and enjoying each moment. Funny piece of advice: you likely have anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 days in your life left. That's it! Make them count!


CAMILLA MARTINEZ

A picture of Camilla Martinez

My research was aimed at determining temperatures in the Ross Sea during the early-mid Miocene using clumped isotope analysis of carbonates from the ANDRILL project. Climate change is an increasingly urgent threat and its effects and projections are yet to be substantially understood. The middle-Miocene is the most recent period in geologic history where carbon dioxide levels reached modern projections and thus serve as a warm climate analog to modern climate change. During this period, the Ross ice shelf completely melted. Today, the Ross ice sheet is stable but has the potential to suddenly melt, causing dramatic global sea-level changes. Therefore, with my study, I aimed to contribute to the existing literature on the Ross Ice sheet in order to better determine the effects of changing climate sensitivity and provide an empirical basis for models of paleoclimate and forthcoming climate change.

Working virtually with my mentor Hannah Tandy at the UCLA Tripati Laboratory, I was able to compile machine outputs, utilize temperature calibrations to compute sample temperatures, and analyze the resulting data. Our results generally aligned with previous studies conducted along the same timeframe, however evidence of porewater infiltration raised questions regarding the preservation of the samples and the formation of cryogenic brines. Further inspection of the samples and calibration optimization is yet to be done.

The SCAS RTP program was integral in my growth as a researcher. COVID-19 hit a few weeks after I had started working in my lab. With the pandemic, doing hands-on research became incredibly difficult and I felt helpless in controlling how much research I could do. However, becoming a part of the program put me in touch with a multitude of research-inclined students, scientists, and advisors which formed a valuable community for collaboration and sharing of knowledge. I learned an incredible amount about conducting research remotely from conversing with other RTP members and was able to apply these lessons to my research. Though I could not access the on-site lab at UCLA, I contributed a major role in data compilation and processing, temperature calculation, and data analysis and visualization, all tasks I was able to do virtually. Attending the annual meeting, I was also able to see how much progress my colleagues had made in the midst of the pandemic. Not only did this program enrich my research, but it helped me learn how to communicate my research to an audience which is undoubtedly the most important aspect.

Since the conclusion of the annual meeting in May, I have continued my work in paleoclimate with my mentor Hannah Tandy and concurrently participated in the Research Science Institute (RSI) this summer. My work at the RSI was regarding time and energy optimal path planning for autonomous ocean vehicles, which allowed me to explore research in geophysical dynamics with MIT’s MSEAS group. Following this experience, I’ve continued working on clumped isotope analysis for paleoclimate, focusing this time on foraminifera samples.

I am eager to have been chosen to present my work in paleoclimatology at the national AJAS meeting which will be held in conjunction with the AAAS Annual meeting in Philadelphia, PA in February 2022. I look forward to meeting other like-minded researchers and discussing works in fields related to mine.


KAVYA GUPTA

Picture of Aksh in front of the Leland Stanford Museum

My research this past year examined the effects of different parameters on the rate of flow of calcium ions at neuronal synapses in dendritic spines. I focused on two ionotropic receptor proteins, NMDA and AMPA, which regulated the flow of calcium ions in the postsynaptic terminal. I created a mathematical model using a series of ODE equations to test the effect of varying parameters, such as the concentration of Magnesium ions in the blocked NMDA channel and then concentration of calcium ions. I also 3D rendered realistic volumes of dendrites that would participate at this neuronal synapse.

Due to COVID, I have been working virtually with the Rangamani Lab in UC San Diego and have not been in the lab yet but I was able to be part of the team remotely. Through my mentors, I learned how to use python to solve the complex ODE models, use literature review to get my basic equations and parameters for my model, and also learned to mesh realistic volumes through their GAMeR Blender Algorithm.

The SCAS (Research Training Program) RTP program was an eye opening experience for a young, curious researcher like me. Before RTP, I had only done one personal research project and most of the work was given to me, so I did not learn how to implement lab thinking and processing skills. I am thankful to SCAS for giving me the opportunity to learn how to present my thought process and my research to a larger audience. I enjoyed listening to the RTP lectures on the tips on how to present and prepare my project paper and poster. More so, I enjoyed creating connections with fellow RTP students, old and new, who had similar interests with me and wanted to communicate with other young scientists. I am grateful for the opportunities RTP and my mentors provided with me and I hope to continue and grow through this program in the upcoming school year. I have the opportunity to represent SCAS at the annual AJAS meeting in February 2022 and I hope to continue to build these eye-opening connections!


MICHAEL SKIBSTED

Michael Skibsted picture

My research was conducted from April to October of 2020, amidst the pandemic. While many field projects were hindered or halted by the crisis, my work actually became more feasible. Due to my relaxed school schedule, I was able to conduct 200 hours of turtle surveys. The wilderness park I worked at, in Orange County California, had enough space to allow for proper social distancing, and all of my surveys were conducted with family members or alone.

This project is really five years in the making. I first proposed the idea to do Southwestern Pond Turtle surveys to Dr. Greg Pauly, Curator of Herpetology at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, at a citizen science symposium in 2016. Dr. Pauly liked the idea, and we began coordinating a survey plan. Years went by and our schedules didn’t align sufficiently to allow for any robust data collection. Finally, this past year, everything fell into place and I conducted 32 surveys on my own, with Greg’s guidance.

Our overarching question was how state listed Southwestern Pond Turtles (Emys pallida) were using urban objects to bask. We also investigated differences in basking activity and site usage among Southwestern Pond Turtles and non-native Red-Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). We are in the process of publishing our results. Based on our analysis of nearly 800 turtle observations, Southwestern Pond Turtles use specific basking sites proportionately much more frequently than Red-Eared Sliders. Some of these basking site objects were much more prevalent along our study stream prior to urbanization, meaning critical Southwestern Pond Turtle basking habitat has been lost at the hands of humans. We are currently working to implement a recycled deadwood project, in order to introduce more preferred basking sites into our study stream. We will further investigate how both species present within the stream react to such introductions, but our assumption is that Southwestern Pond Turtles will utilize these sites much more frequently than the non-native turtle.

My experience in the SCAS-RTP program has been great. Even with the technical challenges brought on by Covid, the program was run seamlessly. I am really grateful for the many individuals who worked extra in order to make the RTP a great experience during these times.

My ultimate goal is to continue my studies at the University of Georgia, where I am interested in studying a variety of turtles and major in Biology/Ecology. Range wide Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys ssp.) trapping and Spring System turtle community ecology are just two of the many topics that interest me. I was fortunate enough to present my Southwestern Pond Turtle research at the 43rd annual International Herpetological Symposium in Rodeo, New Mexico, only a month ago. It was great to be able to share my work with others experienced in the field of hereptology. While in Rodeo, I was also able to find a wild Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata var. luteola), a first for me, and my 37th turtle species!


SU KARA

Picture of Su Kara and Dr. Chang

In my project, I developed an unsupervised algorithm to detect dense regions on mammograms and predict breast density accurately. Breast density is a strong indicator of breast cancer, as women with extremely dense breasts have a sixfold greater risk of developing breast cancer. Breast density volumetric ratios can be assessed by using 3D imaging, such as an MRI. However, these exams are costly. If breast density could be measured on a patient's mammograms, this could help save people’s time and money.

Currently, there are similar medical applications such as convolutional neural networks to assess breast density from mammograms. However, they are either doing binary classifications such as dense or not dense or multi-class classification such as fatty, scattered, heterogeneous, or dense. Those solutions don’t offer accurate information for breast density, as there is no specific ratio of the dense portion to the area of the entire breast. They also require annotations of images by radiologists to train their supervised learning algorithms. Annotating images can be very time consuming, especially if a dataset is large. In order to obtain accuracy with supervised learning, most datasets contain thousands or tens of thousands of images. This is why I wanted to create an unsupervised algorithm, which wouldn’t require annotation of any images, to detect breast density. I trained a Variational AutoEncoder algorithm on mammograms to predict breast density.

I worked with my mentor Dr. Peter Chang and his team on this project. Dr. Chang is the co-director of the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Diagnostic Medicine at UCI. He was also my mentor for the RTP Program last year. Due to the pandemic this year, it was more challenging to stay in contact at first. However, Dr. Chang and I were able to schedule a weekly meeting to discuss my research and any further improvements. We managed to stay in touch and I completed my project efficiently. Through the SCAS RTP Program, I was able to develop better time management skills and work in a more orderly fashion.

The SCAS RTP Program not only allowed me to learn how to work productively with the guidance of a mentor, but it also taught me how to create an effective research paper and poster. Although there were no in-person meetings this year, the Board of SCAS was still able to hold meetings on Zoom, which allowed students to come together and discuss their research. By meeting other students who were a part of the program, I felt more comfortable and confident to pursue my research. It truly felt like we were all a family.

The most exciting part of the program was presenting our projects. When hearing other students’ projects, I realized that there is no limit in science! It was a pleasure meeting all of the judges and answering their questions. Although it wasn’t exactly the same as presenting in person, I enjoyed it all just as much. I presented my project at the Orange County Science and Engineering Fair. I’ve been participating in OCSEF ever since I was in sixth grade. This year, for the first time, I received the first place medal in the Mathematics/Software section. This made me realize how far I’ve come in creating research papers and presentations. Additionally, I published my first paper on the Journal of Digital Imagining for my project from last year: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10278-021-00463-0.

I’m finally able to explore my passions in depth, and I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t joined the SCAS RTP Program.