Discovering a Passion for Robotics through Research
Serena Lin, computer engineering, participated in the UPLIFT (Undergraduate Program for Leaders in Future Transformation Program) where she started research in her first semester as an undergraduate. With a variety of hands-on research experiences, including an NSF REU and working at the Institute for Experiential Robotics, Lin found her passion in robotics.
Serena Lin, who is majoring in computer engineering, is a stellar example of how the Undergraduate Program for Leaders in Future Transformation Scholars program (UPLIFT) helps undergraduate students discover the field they are most passionate about through a multi-year series of research experiences starting in their first year. In high school, Lin liked her math and science AP classes, especially physics. When it came time to look for colleges, Northeastern University’s co-op program and the central Boston location drew her interest.
She says, “I wanted to live the city life and explore all that Northeastern has to offer in terms of research.” Given her interests, she applied as a mechanical engineering and physics major. “Growing up I always liked figuring out how things around the house worked.”
Prior to the start of her first semester, Lin started getting emails about the UPLIFT program. “Northeastern told me I was selected; I wasn’t sure how the program worked so I emailed to ask about it,” explains Lin. “They said it was a program where incoming first years who they thought would be a good fit for research were paired with professors their first semester based on their interests. I received a survey about research topics I’d be interested in. I filled it out based on what I thought I was going to be studying.” That turned into an introduction to Rouzbeh Amini, a professor in bioengineering and mechanical engineering.
In her first semester, Lin joined Amini’s lab for soft tissue biomechanics. “It seemed in the realm of what I was interested in. In that lab, I was paired with a PhD student named Julia Clarin who was researching the tricuspid valve in pig hearts, simulating fluid pumping through the heart, calculating different measurements,” Lin says. “Clarin explained to me her process of using MATLAB for data analysis. It was my first intro to college level research, and I was intrigued. She was applying her research to human hearts to contribute to new understandings and cures for different cardiovascular diseases.”
Meanwhile, Lin dove into her first semester Cornerstone of Engineering I class, which is the introductory engineering class. “We learned to use C++, AUTOCAD, and other engineering technology. During the projects in the class, I realized I liked the coding and Arduino components. I was fortunate to have Professor [Duncan] Davis, who structures his class so the assignments are like challenging puzzles and games,” Lin says. For her final project, Lin and three others built a carnival game leveraging skills and newfound knowledge in mechanical design, wiring, circuitry, game design, and programming. “My favorite part was the coding and wiring. From that, I knew that mechanical engineering and physics wouldn’t fully cover my interests. I started considering electrical, computer engineering, and computer science,” she says. Lin pivoted to computer engineering, with a likely robotics minor. “Through my experiences here, I’ve discovered that my passion is robotics.”
After communicating with Claire Duggan, executive director for the Center of STEM Education at Northeastern, and Rachelle Reisberg, former assistant dean for undergraduate curriculum and students at the College of Engineering, Lin was able to make a decision. “They were really helpful throughout this process. They introduced me to the idea of a second semester directed research study in a robotics lab to help me figure out what I wanted to do.”
The UPLIFT leadership team connected Lin with Taskin Padir, director of the Institute for Experiential Robotics. “I started research with him in my second semester. I was able to join his lab in January with him as my directed research study professor. I started on a project building an autonomous fluid projectile robot. It’s able to precisely shoot fluid into cups based on measurements it can take on its own while using an algorithm to self-correct,” Lin explains. With another undergraduate and her principal investigator, it started as a project to test the efficacy of masks. “They used to call it the smart sprayer.” It was able to test how safe masks would be based on shooting a liquid through it—but has since evolved into a device which at the most basic level can precisely locate and water a plant without human input. Lin says, “It’s able to learn the yaw, pitch, and flow rate for a specified target. It’s been a great introduction to my major. I’ve gotten to learn about fluid mechanics and robotics technology. I often go down rabbit holes of research into larger topics like camera lens mechanics and calibration after being asked to create solutions for problems that come up.”
Robotics combined all of Lin’s interests and motivates her future studies. “Robotics are a big part of the future of technology. That’s where everything is going, robots that can perform human tasks. For me, it combines mechanical design, electrical design, and coding. I hope to one day work on the medical side of robotics with devices and assistive robotic surgery,” she says. Lin is looking into robotics-based co-ops. “Ideally, I’d like to help improve human lives using robotic technology.” She mentions Boston Dynamics as one of many Boston companies focused on her interests.
Due to Lin’s interest in robotics and her work with Padir, the UPLIFT leadership team recommended Lin as a good candidate for a National Science Foundation research experience for undergraduates (REU). REUs are prestigious paid summer research programs over ten weeks funded by the NSF. Accepted into the program, Lin will spend this summer at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Mobile, Pervasive and Sensor Computing Lab working in smart computing and sensing research.
Lin is also a physics tutor. “One of the UPLIFT leadership team members asked if I could tutor it while taking the class. I sometimes have to learn the topics quickly before teaching them, but I’ve met many upper-level undergraduate engineering students through this work,” she says.
Outside of her classes and research, Lin participates in a breadth of Northeastern extracurriculars such as intramural volleyball and the Society for Women Engineers. Lin says, “A lot of my friends are engineers. The classes get hard, and we study together. We have it pretty rough in terms of homework, and we spend a lot of time at the library. Being in the perfect college city, we explore together. And we end up pretty close balancing work and fun.”