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Michael Dominguez ’07 (Tannersville, Pa.), Bryan Culbertson ’07 (Charlottesville, Va.), and Mark Kokoska ’08 (Bloomsburg, Pa.) teamed up to conduct research that will be used to develop models of how fish swim.

Their work eventually will be used by researchers who investigate the origin of vertebrae and other questions surrounding fish locomotion. Chun Wai Liew, head and associate professor of computer science, and Rob Root, associate professor of mathematics, were half of that team of researchers recently awarded a four-year, $956,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the study.

It was a tremendously intricate and complex problem, with scores of parameters that had to be considered. For their part, Dominguez, Culbertson, and Kokoska developed a model of a fish moving through water that will match the video they have of a swimming fish.

The three collaborated with Liew as part of Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students assist faculty with research while earning a stipend. The program has helped make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate in EXCEL each year go on to share their work though articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

“There are 20 different parameters in the model we’ve worked with,” notes Culbertson. “Some are independent, some are interdependent. That type model is so complex that you’re not sure what changes each parameter would make to the result.”

“Mark and I worked to improve the genetic algorithm [a search technique used in computer science to find approximate solutions to certain problems] developed by Professor Liew last year and to figure out different ways to make the optimization run faster,” says Dominguez. “Each full-run experiment of the model would take months to get any results, even partial results, because it is so complicated. So it’s really important to try to get the algorithms running as efficiently as possible.”

“I took the algorithm that they improved and applied it to a model of the fish, testing the different parameters and seeing what changes needed to be made so that these can be applied in the next phase of the project,” says Culbertson.

He ran a mathematical model developed by Root on some of the 16 high-speed computers that Lafayette has acquired for the project, which will provide research opportunities for many other undergraduates in the next four years because of its complexity.

An optimizer based on genetic algorithms creates “mutations” in its calculations, adding successive generations of individual solutions to calculate and find best-answer values. The standard practice is to run the program in an “exploration/convergence” methodology, meaning that programmers first try to explore a broad range of possible values and then zero in, or converge, on the best results from the exploration phase.

“But we found – and what we are basing our next generation of tests on – is that it is better to find good answers as quickly as possible and then explore based on that. So we went against the way things are normally done,” reports Kokoska.

Discovery through experimentation is one of the benefits of the EXCEL program, says Liew.

“This EXCEL work enhanced their algorithm capabilities and they learned how to do experimental work, how to formulate questions and come up with possible answers and ask ‘how can we tell if we are right or wrong?’” says Liew. “Part of the transition from classroom to research is that [in research] you have questions, but you can’t consult anyone to see if the answer is right. In class there is always a right and a wrong answer. Here they asked, ‘Do you think it is right?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know! How would we judge this; how would we know if we are doing it the right way?’”

His three charges also recognized the broader impact of this experience.

“It’s given me the opportunity to work on the same project with people from a number of different disciplines,” says Culbertson. “We work with one problem in class; we don’t actually apply much to different areas. What I found especially interesting and fun [in the research] was finding out how what I’ve learned in computer science actually applies to biology. And I enjoyed doing scientific research, going up to Vassar College to dissect fish – you don’t normally get to dissect fish in your computer science class!”

“It was a great experience getting the opportunity to do this type of in-depth research as an undergraduate,” says Dominguez. “To have this kind of background should I want to apply to graduate schools will be a big asset.”

“Definitely the critical reasoning skills,” says Kokoska of the benefits he sees from his research experience. “It matured me a lot, having to apply my knowledge to the problems we faced. In class you’re not breaking new ground, so having the chance to be on the cutting edge of something you don’t know the answers to was very exciting.

“Professor Liew is very open about the direction of the research; he has a clear picture of what he thinks the next step should be. But he was very careful not to force his ideas on us, rather giving work to do and papers to read and letting us develop the ways to progress. That was very valuable for me because he wasn’t a forcing hand.”

“When we actually discovered the direction to go and made it work, that was a much more powerful learning experience,” adds Kokoska.

There’s something else they learned, although they might not be aware of it.

“None of them worked on anything by themselves because I think that part of research training is learning how to work with people, how to exchange ideas,” says Liew. “And it probably was much more exciting for them to be working with two other students who are as smart and as determined as they are.”

Dominguez and Kokoska are Marquis Scholars, while Culbertson was awarded a Trustee Scholarship from Lafayette.

Chosen from among Lafayette’s most promising applicants, Marquis Scholars like Dominguez and Kokoska receive a special academic scholarship and distinctive educational experiences and benefits, including a three-week, Lafayette-funded course abroad or in the United States during January’s interim session between semesters or the summer break. Marquis Scholars also participate in mentoring programs with Lafayette faculty and cultural activities in major cities and on campus.

Selected from among Lafayette’s top applicants, Trustee Scholars have distinguished themselves through exceptional academic achievement in high school. They receive from Lafayette an annual minimum scholarship of $7,500 ($8,000 effective with the class of 2009) or a grant in the full amount of their demonstrated need if the need is more than $7,500.

Dominguez is a member of the Ultimate Frisbee team and Social Gaming Network.

Culbertson is a member of the Ultimate Frisbee team, Lafayette Christian Fellowship, Martial Arts Club, and Social Gaming Network.

Kokoska is a member of Forensics Society, competing both in debate and public speaking, as well as the Table Tennis Club and Social Gaming Network.

Categorized in: Academic News