Sunday, September 3, 2017

So you think you can research, Vol. 2

This week Alex Séguin, one of our undergraduate research assistants, recounts his experiences at the Lassonde Undergraduate Research Fair. This year we had two entrants - Alex in the poster competition and Brittney Cooper (who wrote last year's post on this event) in the oral competition where she took first prize. I'm already looking forward to next year's Vol. 3.

by Alex Séguin

On Tuesday, August 15th, the Lassonde School of Engineering hosted the 2017 Summer Research Conference. Affectionately named "So You Think You Can Research?”, the event offered undergraduate students working in Lassonde a chance to present the work they have done over the last four months. Naturally, the vast majority of participants were Lassonde students but some were studying mathematics, biology, psychology, or even came from other universities! As for myself, I presented a poster of my work with PVL titled Towards an Airborne Methane-Measuring Sensor for Titan Exploration.

The day started off with complementary coffee and a welcome address from Dr. Pagiatakis (Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies), Dr. Philipps (Interim Vice President Academic and Provost), and Dr. Sinclair (NSERC Ontario Regional Office’s Manager). They emphasized the importance of our first research contributions, saying they are valued and recognized. After this, a newly appointed Assistant Professor named Dr. Boakye-Yiadom talked about his current research, some of the things he had learned along the way, and how they applied to us. In fact, most of what he said applies in any research context!

It was now time for oral presentations. The 7 selected students presented amazing projects, communicated very effectively and bravely answered audience questions. To name a few, the projects included electrotactic behaviour of larval zebrafish, flood prediction, and the world’s largest dynamic scenes video database. Once the judging was done, our very own Brittney Cooper received the First Place Best Talk Award for her work characterizing Martian water-ice cloud crystal geometries and for the quality of her presentation. After a short break, the first poster session began. Since I was scheduled for the second session, I was able to walk around the venue and engage in great conversations with fellow students. The level of technicality achieved by some of my peers was very impressive and truly demonstrates the results hard work and dedication can bring.

After 90 minutes of interaction, lunch was provided to us and I set up my own poster for the second session. Before talking about the experience that followed, a little more information about my research project is in order. My aim was to investigate the feasibility of using a speed-of-sound based sensor to determine the methane mixing ratio of the Titanian atmosphere. First, I produced a theoretical computational model to determine the anticipated value of the speed of sound at Titan’s surface under varying concentrations of methane, hydrogen, and other trace gases. This provided information on the required accuracy of our device and showed water vapour on Earth to be an excellent analogue to Titan's sound velocity profile. In the subsequent stage of the project, we will demonstrate the operational use of such a device by mounting a small ultrasonic anemometer (speed-of-sound based wind velocity sensor) on a drone hexacopter near water vapour sources.

Now that we know a little more about my project, let’s focus on the conference once more. I was able to warm up by presenting to a small group of friends and before I knew it, it was finally show time! Ironically, the first three individuals to whom I presented were all judges so I got to engage in the most technical conversations right from the beginning. I found that the most common question was “How is this useful on Earth, right now?”. I expect this is a question I will have to get used to if I wish to continue on the space engineering path. To me, it was crystal clear that a methane sensor was most useful when used for its intended purpose - planetary exploration. That being said, I understand most people like to see short term benefits so it was a good exercise in explaining my views and finding alternative uses for this concept. An idea brought to me was the possibility of using the sensor to map out methane emissions in landfills. This would require a large amount of modification to our work but it is nonetheless interesting to consider. However, the majority of people were simply interested in how the concept itself works. A side note: I was afraid my poster would not be very readable but the printed version came out perfectly and the font size I used was even larger than expected!

After the second session, a Lassonde Alumni by the name of Patrick Lasagna shared his past experiences doing research in geodesy and how the skills he learned apply to his current job at Applanix Corporation. Given we were all very engaged undergraduates, it follows that the Department of Graduate Studies would take this opportunity to perform a little recruitment. Dr. Palermo and Mr. Lasagna took questions from students and their answers were filled with valuable information which I will use to determine whether or not I wish to continue my studies after my undergraduate degree. Most importantly, Mr. Lasagna gave some great recommendations to help us balance our lives in the last years of our undergrad. After the Alumni Talk, the awards for presentations and posters were presented. Everyone was in high spirits, knowing they had completed a long summer of research and survived to tell the tale.

To conclude, the conference was a great introduction to presenting scientific work. Some things went wonderfully and others did not. Next time, I will prepare accordingly and continue learning from my mistakes. As Dr. Pagiatakis said, research and communicating it takes practice and experience. Moreover, the event was also confirmation that the work I put in this summer was worth it. I found it easy to fall into doubt when working on the most involved parts of the project and end up having tunnel vision. Once more, this reminded me that what I do is important, appreciated, and worth the effort. With my renewed excitement and focus, I am ready to finish this project and head into the academic year!

1 comment:

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