My Journey with Research Experience for Undergraduates at Florida International University
Hello! My name is Nandini Sivakumar and I am an incoming sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a major in Computer Engineering and an interest in Cybersecurity. I am also currently the Head of Hardware for HackHer413. This summer, I got the opportunity to work in a research lab at Florida International University and learn about the Security of Smart Things.
This past year as a first-year engineering student, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go into industry or to go to graduate school after graduation. I had no previous research or work experience and it was hard to decide which one to do. It was when I attended an REU workshop at my university I had decided to apply to one. The fact they offer a stipend made it very attractive and the topics of research were also very intriguing.
In this article, I am going to give a basic idea of what an REU is, how to apply for one, what challenges one often faces while applying and also my experience at my REU: Security of Smart Things.
What is an REU?
REU is short for Research Experience for Undergraduates. Funded by the National Science Foundation it aims at providing research opportunities for undergraduates. It also encourages undergraduates to apply for graduate school and pursue research.
What makes them popular is that they offer you a stipend (from $1000 to $3000 or more) and some even offer to pay for food, housing, even your travel expenses.
Most of them are in the US but some of them are international as well.
- Provide a stipend ($1,000 to sometimes $7,000) and sometimes, they even cover housing, food and travel expenses as well
- Provides the opportunity to gain contacts with experienced professors and researchers
- Opportunity to research a topic of your interest
Requirements before applying:
- Must be an undergraduate student
- Must be a U.S. citizen
- Often require a GPA of 3.20 or above (however if you have a GPA that does not meet the requirement, I would still highly encourage applying as they consider other factors as well)
Applying to an REU:
If you meet the above requirements and are interested in applying you can start by going to the REU website at https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.jsp and search for an REU topic of your choice.
I found the process of choosing an REU extremely confusing. I was interested in Cybersecurity. But beyond that, I really had no clue what I wanted to research in. There were all sorts of complicated research topics that I had never heard of before and I faced a dilemma of which one to choose. I found it helpful to start by searching for topics related to my major. Then I ended up doing a process of elimination based on the location of the REU, how interesting the research topic sounded, the deadline of the application, and the requirements of the REU.
When selecting an REU, also consider factors such as weather, travel convenience, and accessibility to facilities like medical care to accordingly prepare yourselves. When I first got selected for my REU, I was extremely excited that it was in a tropical city like Miami. However, the weather turned out to be extremely hot and that caused me to be tired and often irritated at work. Regardless, that is just my personal opinion and everyone has different preferences. Make sure to keep all factors in mind when choosing your location!
When applying for an REU, you may require documents such as
- Official University/College Transcript
- Letters of recommendation (generally around 2 to 3 are required)
- Statement of Purpose/Cover Letter
Most of the applications for the summer have deadlines around December to February. However, some have a deadline as early as August of the previous year. I received my acceptance around March, but the deadline varies for different REU’s.
REU: Security of Smart Things
My REU was about the Security of Smart Things directed by Dr. Kemal Akkaya. Each of us was assigned a mentor, based on our area of interest, to guide us through the entire research process. When I received my letter of acceptance, I was assigned to my mentor, Dr. Selcuk Uluagac, who is a professor at the host university. Dr. Selcuk specializes in the security of IoT devices and is the Head of the Cyber Physical Systems Security Lab.
The first week consisted of orientations and assignment of research topics. We were assigned to work 8 hours a week from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm with an hour break for lunch. I was assigned to one of the Master’s students working under Dr. Selcuk and was told to report to him for any questions.
The Master’s student developed a program to identify compromised devices using system calls. System calls act as an interface if the user wants to requests services from the kernel (the inner core of a device/computer). My role is to test his code using other methods and see if that improves the accuracy in any way.
In order to do this, I learned various concepts and tools such as machine learning, how to obtain and interpret system calls and improved my Python programming skills. As this was a research lab, I had to figure out how to do everything myself and took my own learning initiatives. I would browse Google for articles, and watch videos on YouTube to help guide me whenever I needed.
After the first couple of weeks, I figured out that doing everything myself was becoming increasingly difficult and overwhelming. It was then that I turned to my mentor and started asking questions. So keep that in mind. Since everyone seemed to be working by themselves, I felt intimidated and obligated to do everything myself as well. However, it is important to ask for help when you need it, regardless of whether others do or not.
Academia v/s Pursuing Research
Once a week, we would have a professional development talk to learn about something related to graduate schools, such as how to write a research paper, how to create a presentation, or how to choose between academia or graduate school.
Some people (like me) assumed research was like discovering a new species of rock or hacking into a database, so I was not keen on pursuing a Master’s degree. But when you are a Master’s student, you are actually not expected to do those things. Mostly, the Master’s level research consists of extending the research of others. It could be just finding an error in a paper or improving the method someone else did. It is only when you reach the Ph.D. level that you are expected to make groundbreaking discoveries. And if you don’t plan on pursuing a Ph.D., unless you are interested in research, you are not required to do a thesis to graduate. You can just attend graduate classes and learn about whatever it is you are interested in.
So if you are interested in learning about something more in your area of interest, an REU is the perfect thing for you. It is an amazing experience regardless of whether you end up pursuing researching about it or not.