Undergraduate Lab Fair opens windows into worlds of research

09/16/15 – BOSTON, MA. – Andrew Tu, E’20, poses for a portrait at Northeastern University on Sept. 16, 2016. Photo by: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When Andrew Tu, E’20, arrived at Northeastern last fall, he did not expect to be towing a buoy that stood 7.5 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter by hand into the ocean come summer. But that world—a watery world—opened up to him when he connected with associate professor Stefano Basagni at the College of Engineering Undergraduate Lab Fair.

“I came to Northeastern knowing I was interested in electrical engineering but not sure if I wanted to go in the direction of electrical computer engineering or computer science,” says Tu. “And then, at the fair, I saw these microwave-sized hardhat yellow balls wired up to a power supply and laptops.”

Tu hadn’t a clue what they were, but he was intrigued. Chatting with Basagni, he learned the yellow balls were sophisticated underwater acoustic modems and part of an underwater wireless communication network that Basagni’s lab was developing. Called the Northeastern University Marine Observatory Network, or NU MONET, the network will bring real-time scientific data from under the sea to researchers on land at the Marine Science Center. Its potential applications range from environmental monitoring to surveillance for defense measures.

The fair is a phenomenal way to see what research opportunities Northeastern offers to undergraduates.
—Andrew Tu, E’20

Other undergraduates can expand their educations through similar opportunities showcased at this year’s fair on Monday, Sept. 19, in the Curry Student Center Ballroom from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Students can explore the work of 32 labs covering fields from nanomedicine to cardiovascular cell modeling, robotics to microbial ecology.

“The fair is a phenomenal way to see what research opportunities Northeastern offers to undergraduates,” says Tu. “Within those opportunities you can find something you already know you enjoy doing or try something really different, like I did. I’ve met incredibly knowledgeable people, acquired not just technical but communication skills, and gained insight into what real-life research is like.”

Learning ‘from the ground up’

Funded by a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant, Tu dove into the research experience with alacrity. He worked eight hours a week on it during the school year and up to 40 hours a week during breaks and over the summer. “I learned everything about MONET from the ground up,” he says.

Tu became proficient at MATLAB, a programming language the team uses to control the modems, tested the efficiency of various networking protocols, and helped design the buoy that he would later tow into the ocean from the Marine Science Center’s private beach front. The buoy, loaded with devices including a radio module and WiFi, will provide constant power to the network as well as reliable wireless communication to shore.

The benefits of undergraduate research opportunities go both ways, says Basagni. “Undergraduate students bring to the table new and original ways to tackle research challenges,” he says. “Andrew’s inquisitive character and incredible curiosity led us to discover new ways of looking at a problem and, with Andrew, to find a solution.”

09/21/15 - BOSTON, MA. -  Scenes during the COE Undergraduate Lab Fair held in the Curry Student Center indoor quad at Northeastern University on Sept. 21, 2015. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Andrew Tu, E’20, at the 2015 COE Undergraduate Lab Fair. “I saw these microwave-sized hardhat yellow balls wired up to a power supply and laptops,” he says. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

For their part, he says, “students have the chance to experience a radically different way to learn. The learning is not just passed hierarchically from a professor to the students, but rather it is a joint endeavor, with both contributing to a common goal.”

Tu, who has decided to earn a combined bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and computer science, is continuing to work on MONET this year. His success at Northeastern underscores Basagni’s assessment. “I am ahead in my classes,” he says. “The research experience enabled me to learn, beforehand, in a low-pressure environment more than I would have by just taking class.”

Outside the box experiences

That environment extended well beyond the lab. As lead author on an upcoming paper in Embark: Northeastern Undergraduate Engineering Review, Tu became proficient in using LaTex, a sophisticated typesetting system for technical and scientific documents. He was a co-author of a peer-reviewed paper that will be presented on Wednesday at the Oceans 2016 conference in Monterey, California. And he was selected to present a poster about his research at the annual REU Symposium, hosted by the Council on Undergraduate Research, in Arlington, Virginia, in October.

“I’ve learned what it means to be a researcher not just in the lab but in terms of writing papers, designing posters, and giving presentations,” says Tu.

At the invitation of Basagni, he also traveled to Italy to learn how to use a new software product developed by a team of researchers at Sapienza, Università di Roma that at once simulates, emulates, and tests novel communication protocols for underwater networking. Funded by a travel grant from the Global Environment for Network Innovations, Tu spent two weeks with the researchers and one week traveling solo—another new world for him.

“The research opened doors to unexpected opportunities,” says Tu. “I went to Italy. I became scuba certified. An introduction to underwater networking led me down trails I couldn’t have imagined before coming to Northeastern.”