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Summer research interns get early look at graduate student life

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When Purdue Terrestrial Observatory Director Gilbert Rochon gave a presentation recently about high tech mapping of Indiana’s flooding this summer, employing satellite imagery from the observatory, Jean Pierre Antelo and Kaiem Frink were there with him.

Their names, that is, as co-authors on the research poster Rochon, associate vice president for collaborative research for Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), unveiled in Boston at an international symposium on geoscience and remote sensing.

Not bad for undergraduates who just completed their bachelor’s degrees and signed on to be research interns this summer at Purdue.

In addition to working on flood mapping, Antelo, who graduated from the University of Florida in May, worked with Purdue management information systems Associate Professor Jackie Rees. That project involved better understanding the need for, and impact of, information security policies in fledgling biotechnology firms.

“They have a lot at stake,” said Rees, whose research focuses in part on information security and security policy. “If you lose your intellectual property, really in any startup, you’re toast.”

Rees became a mentor in the summer internship program in response to a call from Rochon. She liked the program’s goals and thinks it’s important for faculty members to “develop the talent pool.” The experience has been beneficial for her as well.

“I’ve just had a wonderful time with it,” she said.

She and Antelo talked about his interests in arriving at the biotech information security project as a logical confluence with her research. He produced kind of a primer firms considering such policies could use. “He has done a nice job with pursing this,” said Rees, who originally tried to interest her graduate students in the project, without generating a lot of enthusiasm.

Antelo said the experience gives him an idea of what it would be like to pursue a doctorate, something he didn’t think was for him. Now, he’s leaning in the direction of graduate school, maybe even at Purdue. (His brother Jean Paul graduated from the Krannert School of Management in 2002.)

Jean Pierre Antelo could end up on another poster, if one like it is ever printed—hailing the intent of the internship program. The program is designed to encourage talented undergraduate students from social and economic backgrounds that often don’t push research careers to move onto graduate school, and to assist in their preparations for graduate study.

Five interns were sponsored by ITaP, the Purdue Terrestrial Observatory and the NASA-funded Indiana Space Grant Consortium based at Purdue under the Purdue Research Opportunities Program (PROP). The Purdue Graduate School hosts the students through its Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP), which hosts interns sponsored by other campus organizations, too.

In all 37 undergraduate students from around the U.S. and Puerto Rico participated in SROP this summer. They worked in nearly two dozen science and social science research groups with more than 30 Purdue faculty members, according to Melissa Danner, the program’s coordinator in the graduate school.

Besides Antelo and Frink, who’s from Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, N.C., the ITaP interns included Milton Flournoy IV, Martin University in Indianapolis; Julie Nelson, South Dakota State University; and Jerrard Smith-Hopkins, Dillard University, New Orleans. The students receive intensive research experience with Purdue faculty mentors as well as produce research poster and oral presentations. They also attend graduate school admissions test preparation workshops, evening sessions on career opportunities for PhDs in various fields, and more. They take Graduate Record Examination practice tests both before and after their preparation classes.

“It’s nice to know what to expect,” said Nelson, who will be a junior at South Dakota State this fall and is considering pharmacy school. Some of the lessons the students learn aren’t academic in nature. Nelson said she cooked for herself, and grocery shopped, for the first time as a result of her internship. (The interns stay in Purdue’s Hilltop Apartments student complex.)

Smith-Hopkins, whose New Orleans school has around 1,000 students, said he would like to see Purdue, with an enrollment 40 times larger than Dillard, when all of its students are here.

“Being on a campus this big, walking 30 minutes and you’re still on campus, that’s wild,” he said.

The internship comes with a stipend and travel and housing expenses. Rochon, chief scientist for ITaP’s Rosen Center for Advanced Computing in addition to his other duties, said Intel and Motorola have helped ITaP sponsor its interns previously. The Indiana Space Grant Consortium agreed to fill in this year.

Frink actually started working with remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems as a freshman at Elizabeth City, including one program tracking conditions in the Antarctic using satellite imagery. He likes the idea of a career in GIS-related research.

“There are so many opportunities,” he said. “You can help people from all over the world you may never even meet, through a computer, through software.”

One of his professors at Elizabeth City met Rochon at a conference in Kenya and pointed Frink to ITaP’s summer internships. Frink said he knew graduate school was in his future a long time ago. "This gives me a foundation,” he said. “Purdue’s definitely in my top three.”

Danner said 79 participants have gone on to earn their doctorates since the SROP program began in 1980, 41 of them at Purdue.

Purdue graduate student Cliff Robinson, a former PROP student who earned his bachelor’s degree at Texas Southern University in Houston, will finish his master’s in agricultural and biological engineering in August.

For graduate school, he wanted to try a different kind of campus than Texas Southern. Purdue, as a big Big Ten university in the rural Midwest, fit the description. It also struck him as having “a really strong academic atmosphere.”

Robinson, another of the co-authors on the flood-mapping poster Rochon presented in Boston, took GIS courses offered by the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department. He ended up wanting to be a GIS analyst. He’s always liked working with computers, but in an applications rather than programming or computer science theory way, he said.

“Like the FEMA flood maps, you’re actually able to give them a product right away,” he said. Robinson, along with Frink and Antelo, participated in a Purdue project this summer to create computerized, GIS-based 100-year flood maps for 785 U.S. counties under a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Rochon was co-principal investigator on the project.

Rochon also created opportunities for Antelo, Frink, Robinson, and Smith-Hopkins, to be co-authors on a research presentation about overcoming bandwidth and satellite communications limitations in remote sensing and high performance computing applications for African development. That presentation also was made at the Boston conference and Rochon plans to use it in the fall 2008 conference of the African Association of Remote Sensing of Environment, to be held in Accra, Ghana. Flournoy ended up a co-author on a presentation for that conference as well, addressing early warning and mitigation of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases.

Flournoy, a Martin University biology graduate who’s from Indianapolis, said he would like to work in business or industry for at least a year before continuing his education. He’s considering medical school after. The experience in the Purdue program has him reconsidering graduate school and a research career, however.

The summer internship program matched him with chemical engineering Professor Michael Harris. Flournoy’s research for Harris centered on improved sorting of nanoparticles ranging from 200 to 10 nanometers in size. The particles might have a variety of uses, from nanoelectronics, on which Harris and his lab work, to medical applications as miniscule delivery vessels for, say, targeted cancer treatment.

“I find the research that I’m doing very important,” Flournoy said. “To me it’s cutting edge. It’s exciting because of the implications it has.” Harris, who’s also associate dean of engineering for undergraduate education, frequently has undergraduate students working in his lab. He said he tries to give them projects where they can be productive enough to contribute to future scientific publications or grant proposals. He likes them there for another reason as well.

“I’ve recruited some of my best graduate students in that way,” he said.

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