What I did on my summer vacation - engineering style


September 2, 2015

When the final exams have been taken and the heat of summer descends, most university students are packing up their dorms and dreaming of beach vacations. At Carnegie Mellon, however, summer isn't just an opportunity to rest and relax; it's also an opportunity to innovate. From the labs to the Pittsburgh streets to sunny Silicon Valley, California, CMU students have spent their summer months furthering their knowledge, their careers and the technological landscape of our world, proving that summer isn't all about soaking up the sun.

Here are just a few of the College of Engineering's summer innovators.


SURF's Up!

Mechanical Engineering rising junior Andrew Sun was planning his summer when some fascinating research in MechE Assistant Professor Venkat Viswanathan and ECE Assistant Professor Vyas Sekar's lab piqued his interest. "I saw an announcement online about it," Sun recalls, "so I talked to him about it, and he helped me write the proposal."

That proposal was for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), which provides a $3,500 stipend to support students for 8 to 10 full time weeks of summer research in any field of study. In this case, that field is electric vehicle security — studying ways to keep hackers' hands off your car.

"This project in particular looks into the process of possibly having your battery drained in an electric car," Sun explains. "If hackers can access the programming control unit, they can feed it their own code and cause it to behave in ways it shouldn't, making the car less effective."

First, the research team split into two groups: one trying to hack into the car, and the other — the team Sun was on — studying all of the things that could possibly go wrong with an electric vehicle battery. They pored over mountains of data, learning everything they could about the normal operation of a battery. Now they're spending the rest of their summer finding and understanding all of these vulnerabilities. But when fall hits?

"This research is something I'm very interested in continuing," Sun says. "We want to see the results of where this can go."

Yichu JinMechE senior Yichu Jin on the other hand, chose to use his SURF funding to spend the summer flexing — electronics that is. As an undergraduate research assistant in MechE Assistant Professor Carmel Majidi's soft robotics lab, Jin has devoted his summer months to the development of flexible materials that harden in response to an electric charge.

"The idea is to start by building one cell," Jin explains, "and then expand that to an array design." Each of these cells is really two layers of material applied one on top of the other. In its resting state, the material can be pulled and stretched like a rubber band. When a current is applied at each end, however, the material locks up and becomes rigid. "If you apply around 200 volts, you're able to increase the rigidity of the material by about 17 times," Jin says. "That's the best result I've gotten in the lab so far."

Jin has been working in Majidi's lab since last summer and throughout the fall and spring semesters, but it wasn't until this summer that he decided to seek funding to take his work to the next level. "During the semester when you have so much other stuff going on, it's hard to really focus on the research," he says. "Summer is a good chunk of time to commit to the process."

Jin plans to pursue the field of soft robotics in the future. But beyond the practical experience in the field that this research has given him, what he is even more thankful for is the lessons he's learned about research as a whole.

"One thing I learned about doing research in general," Jin says, "is that you have to have a calm mindset. Because with research, you achieve something on Monday and you're very happy, but on Tuesday things just seem to fall apart. This is the nature of research: you fail and then you try another one and then it gives you hope and then you fail again. But eventually you do succeed."


California Sun

Out in California, things are heating up for Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley master's students.

Elomar SouzaWhile many people spent their summers lying on the beach listening to their favorite audio book, CMU-SV Information Networking Institute (INI) master's student Elomar Souza was hard at work. Through his summer internship with Audible, one of the world's leading providers of audio books, Souza chose to use his coding skills to gain real-world experience in the field of software engineering and make many people's summer relaxation possible.

"I want to get work experience while pursuing my degree so I can better understand what I want to do after graduation and be in a better position to look for a full-time offer," Souza explains. "I also wanted to use the resources I have access to as a CMU student, such as resume review sessions and prestigious career fairs."

So as the summer began, he headed out to the east coast to Audible's headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, where their compelling offer and balanced work environment made accepting the internship a no-brainer.

But being a software engineering intern for Audible would quickly prove to be vastly different from the smaller companies Souza had worked for in the past — a challenge that would make the work all the more valuable.

"There's a lot of infrastructure and tooling required to run a service at such a large scale, which is very different from anything I've worked on before," he says. "It took me a while to become confortable with the set of tools used to write, build and deploy code at Audible."

The specific tools and languages used to write code can vary from company to company, but the lessons Souza brought back with him to Silicon Valley will stay with him for years to come, making him an asset to companies of any scale.

"I learned a lot about many things a company has to worry about with software beyond 'it works,'" he says. "Both technical concerns such as making software scalable, flexible and maintainable, and organizational concerns such as how to structure teams and onboard employees."

Yinan DingYinan Ding, Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) master's student at CMU-SV, has spent his summer months networking and making invaluable industry connections by helping others do the same.

As an intern working on the Service and Presentation Infrastructure team at LinkedIn, the popular professional networking website, Ding hopes to get a leg up on the competition when he enters the software engineering workforce upon graduation.

"It took three months of dedication and luck," Ding says. "I started to practice my interviewing in October, with my friend and I interviewing each other every day. With my course projects going on, I had enough material for my resume, so I began to apply for internships in November. I applied to almost 30 companies, and only LinkedIn replied back to me within a month."

But Ding never gave up, and after three intensive interviews with the company, he was offered the internship. Thanks to LinkedIn's great reputation, competitive pay and friendly core team, he gladly accepted.

"My job is refactoring one sub-project from Play Framework plugin projects," he explains, "then making it open-source and integrating that version with all the other sub-projects."

While the technical experience in software engineering is valuable, what Ding has learned stretches far beyond mere skills. With this internship, LinkedIn gave him a taste of what real life in the industry is like and the chance to explore and learn new areas that may interest him moving forward.  The internship, he says, was the perfect chance to learn the difference between his school courses and the reality of the industry.

"One of LinkedIn's cultural values is 'Relationship Matters,' and I really believe that. The relationships I have with my family and friends; classmates and faculty at Carnegie Mellon; and my mentors, managers and colleagues at LinkedIn are what really got me to where I am now."


Turning up the Heat

Rajakshmee SharmaWhen the thermometer reads 98 degrees Fahrenheit and you're hiding inside with the air-conditioning cranked to high, it's difficult to think about creating a warmer sleeping bag. A team from the Integrated Innovation Institute, however, has a penchant for thinking ahead. Integrated Innovation master's students Rajlakshmee Sharma and Alex Surasky-Ysasi, Tepper School of Business graduate Linh Thi Doand Priya Ganadas, a graduate candidate in tangible interaction design at the School of Architecture, used their summer to look forward and take on the problem of winter. 

This problem comes in the form of dangerously cold temperatures that can often make sleeping outside in the cold winter months deadly — a daily reality for many homeless individuals. The team was first introduced to the prevalence of this issue during the 2014 Impact-a-thon, an event set up by the Integrated Innovation Institute that tasked groups of innovative thinkers to come up with novel, affordable strategies and products to help the homeless survive the winter.

The team's response to this problem was the Satellite Shelter. Homeless shelters in the city of Pittsburgh offer protection from the harsh winters overnight, but when the shelters max out and there aren't nearly as many beds as there are people to fill them, many homeless individuals are left to fend for themselves. So, if they can't go to a shelter, the team thought, maybe they can take the shelter with them.

"Ideally, everyone is in housing," says team member Alex Surasky-Ysasi. "We all agree about that. But the fact is that people do sleep outside. So we want to give them the best thing that we can give for a low cost that works for them and suits their needs."

After asking around at city shelters and organizations that work with the homeless, the team came up with five criteria for their portable homeless shelter: portability, durability, protection from outside elements, regulated internal environment and low cost. With all of these considerations taken into account, the team came up with a portable, foldable tent with an insulated sleeping bag inside that could be collapsed and carried during the day, then folded out for shelter at night.

The team took 2nd place at Impact-a-thon for their original design, but the accolades didn't stop there.

"We got some press in January, from the Huffington Post and others," explains Linh Thi Do, "and then suddenly people were approaching us saying they wanted to buy it. We had to say, 'sorry, it's not real yet!'"

"There was even a debate on a zombie apocalypse forum," added Priya Ganadas, "arguing how you could use this shelter to survive and whether or not the design would work in that scenario."

It wasn't until the team was approached by Clifford Rowe, CEO of PJ Dick and Trumbull Incorporated, who offered funding for the project, that they could begin the process of bringing their idea from prototype to reality. With the pressures of classes and assignments all around them, however, the summer seemed like the only time they'd have the mental space to wrap their heads around this tremendous endeavor.

"It became official in May," says Surasky-Ysasi, "and we've spent all summer going back to do in-depth research on what we did initially in a very short time."

A lot has changed since the Impact-a-thon. Three of the team's members, Rajlakshmee, Alex Surasky-Ysasi, and Linh Thi Do have graduated and moved away. The latter two are now based out of Washington D.C., and drive to Pittsburgh every other week to work on the project in person, using phone and Skype calls in the off weeks to keep everyone up-to-date on their progress. Since then, the team has also participated in numerous events, including the CMU Grad Fair and the National Maker Faire, a national event that took place on the White House lawn to celebrate innovation and creation across the country. Surasky-Ysasi was even invited to speak on a panel at the White House on the role of making in education.

But what has changed the most is the Satellite Shelter itself. The team has spent the summer refining the design based on their five criteria. Now, with the help of additional industry partnerships, they have developed a lightweight, low-cost, effective prototype that is one step closer to market. The new design looks much like a tri-fold poster board that accordions out to create a large, triangle tent with an insulated sleeping bag inside. From here, the team looks forward to mass production and distribution methods to ensure that communities can get a shelter into the hands of everyone who needs it.

"When the Institute first suggested expanding this project into the summer, they didn't think anyone would be interested," says Rajlakshmee Sharma, "but it was absolutely the other way around. All four of us were immediately interested. It's very cool to see the interest in the maker movement from a social impact perspective and how people want to channel that energy towards social causes."

Story originally posted here.

Related People:

Vyas Sekar

Yinan Ding