Omer Ahmed hoped to get a taste of graduate school. Nathanyal Carter felt curious about research. Edwin Lewis thought the schedule might be strict.

None of these students had clear expectations for the summer research program from Virginia Tech’s Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program, but they were all open to an experience — and they are getting one. They are sinking deep into mind-bending research and snapping into fast friendships with 37 other undergraduates from 15 institutions who traveled to Blacksburg to sample the Hokie graduate experience.

“I met Edwin on the first day of this program, and we’ve been best friends ever since,” said Ahmed, a rising sophomore computer science major at Virginia Tech. “I’ve also met a lot of other people that I will maintain a lifelong connection with. As minorities in engineering fields, and college in general, we share a lot of experiences.”

The internship program targets undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds who are entering fields with low diversity. Students test their research mettle with faculty advisors, applying genuine effort as their genuine selves — both in the lab and out of it.

“One of the goals is to diversify our graduate student population,” said Monica Hunter, director of the program.  “A paid internship on campus that also makes you more marketable for graduate school or industry, that's just golden.”

But what Hunter believes sets the program apart from other summer internships are the relationships.

“I tell them on day one, look around at these strangers sitting next to you,” Hunter said. “These are going to be some of your best friends for the rest of your life, I promise you.”

The students spend 10 weeks immersed in the rigors of graduate research, mentored by faculty members from research labs across campus. Three of these faculty members are funded in part by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) in Southwest Virginia as part of its mission to build diverse teams with diverse approaches to strengthen the field of cybersecurity. CCI values research at all levels and champions student involvement in its research programs.

At the end of the summer,  Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program students and CCI student researchers alike are encouraged to present their research at the Virginia Tech Summer Research Symposium on Thursday, July 27. The deadline to register as a presenter is July 17 at 5 p.m.

CCI-supported  Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program labs

The following four  Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program students are working in labs with Virginia Tech faculty members who are supported in part by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative in Southwest Virginia. 

Two students looking at each other trying not to laugh
Omer Ahmed (at right), is a rising Virginia Tech sophomore majoring in computer science. Edwin Lewis (at left) is a rising sophomore studying software engineering at Morehouse College. The two students share a research lab and a friendship thanks to the Virginia Tech Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Omer Ahmed and Edwin Lewis in "Code World, No Blanket" computer science lab

Omer Ahmed

Rising sophomore, computer science, Virginia Tech
Research mentor: Chris Brown, assistant professor, computer science, College of Engineering
Research question 1: Can we design a more flexible, elementary approach to debugging?
Research question 2: How can machine-learning tools reduce bias in software engineering hiring?
Biggest takeaway: “It’s on you to make the most of it,” said Ahmed. “I realized that if I want to be successful, I need to put in more work. I’ve pushed myself harder these past few weeks and seen improvements.”

Edwin Lewis

Rising sophomore, software engineering, Morehouse College
Research mentor: Chris Brown, assistant professor, computer science, College of Engineering
Research question: How do end-of-project reflections — also called postmortems — help game developers handle challenges and improve projects?
Biggest takeaway: “I’m learning how to manage my time and balance my work life with my social life,” Lewis said. “And I’m getting a peek at what my future could look like.”

A student holds a computer in front of a car in a garage
Miles Grimes, a student from Michigan State University, in the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Automation Lab. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Miles Grimes in the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Automation Lab

Senior, mechanical engineering, Michigan State University  
Research mentor: Miguel Perez, associate professor, biomedical engineering and mechanics, Virginia Tech College of Engineering, research scientist, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
Research question 1: How can in-vehicle cameras and sensors monitor occupants’ vital signs after a crash?
Research question 2: How do drivers really react to an emergency vehicle on the road?
Biggest takeaway: “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Grimes said. “Ask for help. You’re not being a nuisance, you’re learning.”

A student holds a virtual-reality headset
Nathanyal Carter, a rising Virginia Tech sophomore majoring in electrical engineering, is investigating if a virtual-reality environment can improve a person’s focus and productivity during online trainings. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Nathanyal Carter in the Human IMPaC-T Lab

Rising sophomore, electrical engineering, Virginia Tech   
Research mentor: Rafael Patrick, assistant professor, industrial and systems engineering
Research question 1: Can a virtual-reality environment improve focus and productivity during online trainings?
Biggest takeaway: “If you get an opportunity like this one, don’t be scared to take a risk,” Carter said.

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