Saturday, April 22, 2017

By Lynn Anderson Davy
University of Iowa Strategic Communication

When Rachel Bruflodt scored an A+ in an electrical engineering class in her sophomore year, her professor, Ananya Sen Gupta, offered the young woman a golden opportunity: a position as a research assistant on a project to identify the sources of oil spills and other contaminants, also known as environmental signal processing.

Not only was she able to apply a mapping method created by her professor to fingerprint the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to another spill in California, but she also was able to spot and correct glitches in the mapping technique and then reboot it to analyze different data sets, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. She is currently participating in a research collaboration that involves the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Massachusetts and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Rachel absolutely astounded me,” says Sen Gupta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the College of Engineering. “I have cross-checked her work, as I do with all of my students, and I have never found an error. She is truly amazing.”

In recognition of her hard work and contributions, Bruflodt, now a junior, was named UI’s 2016–17 student employee of the year. The Dubuque, Iowa, native and seven other student employees, as well as nine student employee supervisors, was honored April 13 at a reception at the home of UI President J. Bruce Harreld.

“Without student employees, it would be impossible to manage the basic tasks that make university offices, food service, libraries, patient care, and the Cambus run day in and day out,” says Cynthia Seyfer, senior associate director for student financial aid, whose office oversees roughly 7,000 student workers on campus. “In addition, student employees are often on the cutting edge of university research.”

Student employee supervisors—university employees who assign and monitor the work of student employees—make equally important contributions to campus life.

“Supervisors are critical to the educational experience of the student employee,” says Seyfer. “They help students connect their learning in the classroom to their learning on the job, develop transferable skills, and often provide references for professional employment or graduate school applications.”

Student employees earn a salary, but the reward goes beyond dollars and cents, says Seyfer.

“Campus jobs allow students to develop the skills necessary to compete in the workplace,” she says. “Students often comment on how their student employment experiences help them to develop or improve on skills such as time management, organization, critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication.”

Sen Gupta has watched as Bruflodt, a natural introvert, has learned to exert herself among her peers and superiors, even cleaning up computer code and making improvements on her own.

“I find her energy and talent exhilarating and have been delighted to see her blossom from a quiet student to a serious scientist in training,” says Sen Gupta.

Asked about her plans after graduation in 2018, Bruflodt says she’s not sure. For now, she’s just happy to be working on data riddles, forever searching for numeric patterns that could help scientists better understand the effects of contamination on our fragile natural environment.

“I have definitely enjoyed this experience because I wanted to learn about work as a researcher,” Bruflodt says. “I like anything that allows me to apply what I have learned to solve real problems.”

Two additional students who work in the College of Engineering were honored with Certificates of Distinction.  They are Rojahn Kakavandi, Women in Science and Engineering, and Anna Seydel, Center for Computer-Aided Design.

In the four years since Kakavandi, a senior from Decorah, Iowa, started working as a peer mentoring and ambassador assistant for WiSE at the College of Engineering, she has become a strong advocate for women in the STEM fields. “When you talk with Rojahn, it’s clear that she believes in the mission of WiSE and the work we do,” says Linda Varvel, co-director of WiSE. “She always puts great care and effort into the work she does for WiSE, which results in events and programs of a very high caliber.” For example, Kakavandi helped improve participation in an annual mock networking event by soliciting feedback from students who had attended previous events. She also organized a “virtual retreat” over the summer so she and other students could plan WiSE events for the coming academic year. Kakavandi created a PowerPoint presentation that outlined her vision for the year and then sent it to members of the WiSE executive board for feedback. For the first time, WiSE ambassadors started the year with a list of events already in the works. Says Varvel, “When talking about Rojahn, someone once told me: ‘That young woman is amazing. She is truly someone special.’ I couldn’t agree more.”

Imagine working with a digital human. That’s what Seydel, a senior from Iowa City, Iowa, has been doing at the Center for Computer-Aided Design lab at the College of Engineering. As an undergraduate research assistant, she completed a project to compare motion capture files using a task-based, biomechanical range-of-motion score, and then used the data to create a new tool in the Santos™ digital human software. From there, Seydel continued to study existing motion capture processing techniques and devised a way to further improve biomechanics analysis. She is the lead author of a research paper on this work, the abstract of which has already been accepted to the Eighth International Conference on Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics 2017. “Anna has demonstrated a rare combination of talent in both practical application and research diligence,” says Kimberly Farrell, senior software engineer for the Virtual Soldier Research Program at the Center of Computer-Aided Design. “She works to ensure that the end product of both her code and her research is not just a proof of concept but a robust and reliable solution that can be used in a professional software product.”