Monday, June 8, 2020

URSP Student Javi Talavera Develops a Wheelchair Training Simulation for Wheelchair Users

This semester my project was to develop a wheelchair training simulation that would
automatically generate training scenarios for wheelchair users. The goal of my research was to
find an effective alternative to current wheelchair training methods. The three main methods of
training that my team and I identified was the use of a human coach, self teaching through trial
and error, and video tutorial or instructions manual. Of the three we identified our focus was on
solving limitations including things such as lack in variability of location or time when training
can be completed.

The first step to my project was to create the automatically generated environments in a
software known as Unity. The generation of the scenarios used a cost based approach combined with the Metropolis Hasting Algorithm ​to generate indoor environments with a specified training path for the user to follow. Working on this taught me a lot about a machine learning technique
known as reinforcement learning and how to apply it in my simulation. Before working on this
section I knew very little about acceptance algorithms such as the Metropolis Hasting algorithm
and did a lot of research on the benefits that came with using it in the generation of my training
simulation. By working on this part of the project I gained more experience in the Unity software
and how to apply different abstract concepts in my coding.

After the simulation was created the next step was to create the movement of the virtual
wheelchair. This was accomplished by using trackers that were placed on each wheel of a
manual wheelchair. The rotation of the wheels on the wheelchair were tracked and translated to
movement in the virtual space.

The next step was to perform the user study and collect our data. I was fortunate enough
to perform the user study before everything with COVID-19 took place leaving me with just the
need to compile the data for my research.  I continued to meet with my mentor on a weekly basis
through the use of google hangouts to compile the data. With the data I was able to conclude that
our training method did increase precision and maneuverability of the wheelchair of those put
through the simulation. The next steps to this project are to look at how to include realistic
outdoor environments for the user to train in.

My experience with URSP was a very rewarding one and helped me learn a lot about the
research field and how to adapt to different situations. It also gave me the opportunity to gain
hands-on learning in fields of research that interests me and overall has provided me with a very
beneficial experience.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

URSP Student Leela Yaddanapudi Develops a Hate Speech Detection Algorithm for Political Hate Incidents on Twitter

This semester, I worked on a project related to Twitter data analysis on politically motivated race-related events. This includes the trial for Patrick Crusius’s El Paso shooting at a Walmart in Texas, incidents of hate on college campuses, and other crimes committed by political extremists in 2020. Tweets on each of these incidents were gathered and categorized into non-offensive, offensive, and hate speech categories. The goal of this project was to design a machine-learning algorithm that could effectively determine hate speech from tweets related to politically motivated events. The jargon for political hate speech is constantly changing, which was why I decided to specifically focus on current politics to design the most effective algorithm. Additionally, many studies suggest that a strong correlation exists between online hate speech and offline violence. Researchers are constantly trying to improve machine-learning hate speech algorithms and I attempted to design an algorithm of my own that could pick up on the most concealed variations of political hate speech.

For most of this project, I used python to gather and analyze my tweets, the hate base API for testing, and Octave to compare the accuracy of the results from my algorithm with existing hate speech detectors. I fed the machine-learning algorithm four out of the five incidents of hate, which consisted of 80% of the tweets gathered, and the rest were used for testing. The algorithm had an accuracy of about 81% while the Hate Base API was unable to categorize even the most obvious political hate speech. I also performed some qualitative analysis on the tweets gathered by analyzing how sentiments and popularity of tweets changed following the first few weeks after an incident occurred.

My project was originally geared towards qualitative analyzation of the tweets using the hate base API. However, after discovering that it was not able to detect political hate speech at all, I decided to design my own hate speech algorithm, which took up most of my project. Originally, I planned on performing more testing related to political hate incidents in 2020. However, due to Covid-19 and quarantining, I couldn’t find as many political hate incidents that went viral on Twitter, so I was unable to gather as many tweets and perform the testing I wanted to. Instead, I just worked on further qualitative analysis of the tweets and comparing my hate speech detection algorithm against the most widely used hate speech detection platform, Hate Base. In terms of my next steps for this project, I plan on making my hate speech algorithm broader because it is only able to recognize political hate speech currently. Additionally, I hope to utilize the viral tweets generated by future hate incidents on social media to further teach my machine-learning algorithm and increase its accuracy.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

URSP Student Arielle Rosenberg Creates a Uyghur Genocide and Human Rights Awareness Campaign

As an aspiring human rights attorney, I am always looking for ways to get involved in major social issues and attempt to make a difference. I constantly ponder the questions of “Why do atrocities keep happening?” “What drives people towards involvement in Human Rights issues?” and “How do we best approach this situation to ensure lasting and significant resolutions?” As a Jew, I have always been particularly troubled by the concept of Genocide, intending to focus my career around anti-Genocide and humanitarian efforts. Thus, when I first began hearing about the Uyghur Muslim situation occurring in the Xinjiang region of China today, I could not simply sit idly back and watch things unfold to mimic previous Genocides throughout history. Therefore, I decided to be both proactive in my advocacy and my research in order to understand what drives others to get involved in Human Rights causes and attempt to make a contribution to the human rights and conflict resolution fields. 

With the help of my amazing mentor, Dr. Douglas Irvin-Erickson, and research partner, Quinton Walsh, I was able to articulate the goals and methodology of our potentially groundbreaking research project and earn funding to carry out such research. The road that followed has not been an easy one; between balancing an 18-credit course-load and struggling to obtain IRB approval for my research, we were initially off to a slow start. Just before Spring Break though, we were able to obtain the approval we needed to conduct our research, and things had started looking up as we began coordinating with academic departments for their cooperation in the project. 

Our original plan was to utilize surveys of on-campus populations, whether they be students, faculty members, or workers, to understand what was previously known about the Uyghur situation prior to our campaigning efforts, then to enact what we call an “awareness campaign” in which we conduct on campus tabling, speaking events, film screenings, and a congressional letter-writing initiative to measure the change in participant knowledge about and attitude towards the Uyghur situation throughout the semester of activism. But then, COVID-19 struck, and we were unfortunately unable to return to campus to complete our research. Our project, in its fundamental methodology and planning, is dependent on in-person participation and does not have the capability of reaching the audience and results we desire without on-campus activities.

Despite the bleak fate of our project for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester on campus, I have remained steadfast in my efforts to raise awareness of the Uyghur situation; utilizing my personal social media to spread knowledge of the situation and educating friends and family myself on the situation. Additionally, my teammates and I were able to adapt to the current COVID-19 situation by taking proactive measures to utilize our funding and re-design our project for the Fall 2020 semester. Adapting our project and coming to the ultimate decision to put off our primary efforts until the Fall of 2020 was a difficult decision to make, as we realize our project has the capability to alter the lives of others, if successful. However, we had to realize that our efforts and findings would not be anywhere near as accurate and attainable as we had hoped in our original planning, and thus it was necessary to postpone our project for a semester. Although our hope is to be able to return to campus in the Fall to conduct our project the original way, we will at least know early enough this time around if we need to utilize a “plan b” for conducting our research entirely or partially virtually. We plan on effectively implementing our research and findings in the Fall of 2020 to continue our efforts, even if in a non-traditional way, to contribute to the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution fields and make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

URSP Student Ali Ahmad Investigates the Effects of Lead on Metabotropic Glutamatergic Receptors in the Brain

This semester I conducted research on the effect of lead on metabotropic glutamatergic receptors in the brain. It is widely known that chronic exposure to lead can cause serious neurological damage, potentially causing deficits in cognitive development. The goal of my research was to detail the specific mechanism in which lead affects our brains. Lead targets specific receptors in our brains that control the transmission of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that is vital in cognitive development. The specific receptor my project focuses on is the mGluR7a metabotropic glutamatergic receptor. To test the function of this receptor, Xenopus Laevis oocytes were used as a model system.  

The first objective of my project was to build a fully functioning electrophysiology lab where I could conduct the experiment. This involved purchasing and setting up microscopes, displays, a perfusion-vacuum system, and a two-electrode voltage clamp system. A variety of electrophysiology solutions were also made to be used later on. Prior to actual experimentation, I practiced techniques such as injecting the oocytes to help me during the actual experiment. These skills and materials were to be used to begin recording data and measuring the response of these oocytes in the presence of lead. 

However, before any conclusive data was obtained, COVID-19 forced us to stop our work in the lab. Eager to continue my project, I worked with my mentor Dr. Greta Ann Herin, to find a way to continue researching my topic. Dr. Herin provided me with existing data that gave me a look at how lead impairs the function of these receptors in oocytes. This allowed me to reach a conclusion that lead does indeed impair these glutamatergic receptors in a concentration-dependent manner. 

Overall, my URSP experience allowed me to build on a critical skill in the field of research, which is adaptability. Despite the COVID-19 crisis, I was still able to continue my project and present my research. Moving forward I hope to soon be able to get back into the lab and continue the research process.

Monday, May 11, 2020

URSP Student Paresha Khan Researches Lead Poisoning in Frog Eggs

How does the glycine receptor contribute to the cognitive-behavioral effects that humans experience due to lead poisoning? I am interested to study this research topic because lead poisoning has been an issue for a long time now. Apart from children acquiring lead poison by accidentally eating dirt, some older homes still have lead paint on their walls which also contribute to accumulating in the soil. This can prevent families from planting fruits and vegetables in their gardens. Although lead poisoning has its cures, the detrimental effects left in someone’s brain after getting the disease remains. People with lead poisoning can develop problems to their cognitive ability which can affect motor function, memory, vision, and the ability to make decisions. 

Therefore, I am specifically studying glycine receptors because they are responsible for fast inhibitory neurotransmission in the CNS, predominantly in the spinal cord and brainstem as well as the retina. This receptor in the human body plays a role in allowing neurons to fire so that signals can be sent to our brain in order to complete everyday tasks. By using the glycine receptor, I will be injecting frog eggs with several solutions to see how lead poisoning affects the way they function. 

Apart from conducting the actual research, I play a role in actually building the neuroscience lab from scratch. Dr. Herin is the first professor at George Mason to be studying this topic; our team has put together all of the equipment and protocol necessary for this project every week. We have put together two microscopes, the current and voltage meter needed to measure the frog eggs, a TV in order to see the microscopic images in high definition, making solutions needed for the injections, and setting up the test tubes needed for the solutions. Last week, we started injecting the frog eggs for the first time with DI water. By practicing this technique, we plan on injecting the eggs with RNA after spring break. After our group becomes acclimated to injecting the eggs, we will begin the research project with the glycine receptor. 

In the long-run, I think that this project will give us great results that will show us how lead poisoning can affect frog eggs. We can run multiple trials with various solutions to cure the lead poisoning while also observing the negative cognitive effects it leaves behind. Apart from this project, I strongly believe that we are building a useful lab that future students at George Mason University can use.