Fall-Winter 2014 Sayood

  • Sayood helps students get valuable individual research experience

    Students get rare research experience

Khalid Sayood, Heins professor of electrical engineering, has opened up horizons for many undergraduate students by offering unique, individualized research opportunities.

Khalid Sayood enjoys leading teams that are doing detective work, just not the glamorous investigations you might see on a TV drama or the process that leads to closing a cold case.

Instead, the students working in Sayood’s Occult Information Lab are using data compression to pore through large and varied databases in hopes of solving many of the world’s problems.

In doing that, Sayood has opened up horizons for those students – many of them undergraduates – by offering unique, individualized research opportunities.

“I don’t put them in a typical lab. Most labs take undergraduates and add them to an existing project. I want them to do individual work, so it’s their project that they’re doing the work on,” said Sayood, Heins Professor of Electrical Engineering. “They might work with somebody, but they’re not cogs in the machine. I like them to have more ownership in what they’re doing.”

The work the students are doing encompasses many different disciplines, and the research is often part of other projects that require specialized attention.

“They’ll have a question, not necessarily an entire project but a question. How does this relate to this? We can do that pretty rapidly for them,” Sayood said.

“It gives us connections with other people in other parts of the university and introduces students to the research process by giving us projects these students can do and that are useful for the researchers,” Sayood said. “One student is doing compression work, one is looking at yeast to find the information that’s buried there in different sequences, other students are doing work with UNMC’s pathology and microbiology program.”

Some of the funding for these projects comes from the clients, such as UNMC, and some from within the department. Sayood is using some of the money he gets from being the Heins Professor of Electrical Engineering, and colleague John Woollam, George Holmes Distinguished Professor, provides some from funds he uses for undergraduate research.

These individualized research projects are shorter-term, Sayood said, allowing students to quickly meet their goals and gain valuable experience.

“The idea is, because we’re funding this in ways that are not tied to particular projects, they don’t have to provide deliverables. It’s mostly discovery,” Sayood said. “It might lead to something, it might not. It might dead-end there, which is OK. There is this joy of seeing something that you’ve heard about and getting to see it in practice.

“We’re kind of 1½ generations into this type of research. The first kids are seniors and some are coming up on graduation. Many of them already have their research published, which is unique for undergraduates.”

Garin Newcomb, who soon will graduate with an electrical engineering degree, has been working with Audrey Atkin, associate professor of Biological Sciences, on a project to document the DNA sequences of yeast. He said the opportunity to do individualized research might be an advantage when applying to graduate programs.

“I know more about the specifics of this project than anyone. Having that much responsibility to myself, I think it suits me well,” Newcomb said.

“It helps with applications, especially since it’s focused on research and that I’ve had to interact with professors from different disciplines,” Newcomb said. “I have a leg up on other applicants in terms of being able to apply different ideas, approach things from different ways and understand and communicate better with a wide range of people.”

Austin Riffle, a fifth-year electrical engineering student who refers to himself as a “super senior,” is also doing bioinformatics research. He is working with an algorithm developed in the Occult Information Lab that will eliminate redundancies in DNA data to decrease the size of stored files.

This individualized project is the first foray into research for Riffle, who plans to enter the work force after graduating in May.

“Immediately, this looks amazing on a resume. I will have published data that says I did this. I took on this huge project, broke it down into small pieces and figured it out,” Riffle said. “Even if you don’t use this research to help you get more projects or grad school, it’s still something for an employer to look at and say, ‘You’ve done something pretty amazing.’”

Some of the work Sayood’s undergraduate researchers have done is already being applied in new fields of data compression, such as bioinformatics and metagenomics.

Sayood said one modified program is being used by the Argonne National Laboratory’s Earth Microbiome Project, which is trying to create a global gene atlas by cataloguing all of the millions of the world’s microbes by examining microbial communities.

“We have very little idea what’s going on. We don’t even have names for most of the bacteria, less than 1 percent of all bacteria,” Sayood said. “All the standard microbiological approaches fail, so you have to figure out how to look at them as a colony and then figure out who’s doing what in there.

“That’s not much different from taking a whole bunch of conversations and trying to figure out who’s talking and what they’re talking about. We developed an algorithm for doing exactly that, taking pieces from a microbiome and assigning them to different types of bacteria.”

This all creates a world of opportunities that Sayood said too many undergraduates don’t get to experience.

“It’s a good, good thing, and it’s a direction that we should go,” Sayood said. “At UNL, we have to focus on the primary goal, which is educating the students. Research should be our strength as well, and what I’d like to do is focus more on our undergraduates. Giving them opportunities to do research like this is a form of education that can be so valuable to the whole undergraduate experience.”