Students Gain Real-World Perspective on Research Projects

RESIZED FM66_Intelligence_MeetingofthemMinds_05.jpgProfessional feedback on a new technology or business idea can be almost impossible for a young person to come by, but for 24 undergraduate students and one graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), the advice flowed freely from a panel of experts who reviewed research projects presented at CMU-Q’s 8th annual ‘Meeting of the Minds’ research symposium. The experts, from academia, government and industry, explained what they found interesting about each idea, and chose the best projects and posters for special recognition.

The students used research posters, videos and other visual aids to present their work, not only to the panelists but also to an audience of family, friends, faculty, and fellow students. Feedback came in the form of scores for each project as well as comments and questions from the judges.

The judges came from a wide range of businesses, government offices and research institutes, including Qatar Shell, Vodafone Qatar, iHorizons, PC DealNet, ictQATAR, Qatar Biobank, Aspire Zone Foundation, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q), Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, Qatar University, Qatar Foundation, Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), and Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF).

Access to feedback from such distinguished real-world experts was the most valuable part of the experience for student Sabih Bin Wasi. He said: “It’s not just about presenting our system; it’s about getting feedback about the system from the experts, which would never happen elsewhere. For example, I would never be able to get in touch with a principal scientist from QCRI or the head of QNRF to get feedback about what we are trying to do. ‘Meeting of the Minds’ is a great opportunity for that kind of communication to happen.”

Two computer science students, Aliaa Essameldin and Mounira Tlili, designed an application to streamline the judging process. Their system allowed the judges to rate the research posters according to specific criteria including creativity of approach, appearance of the poster, clarity of the organizational flow, and significance of the project.

All of the projects represented collaborations between students and their faculty advisors, representing the core values of CMU-Q, according to Mark Stehlik, Associate Dean for Education. He said: “Research at Carnegie Mellon is collaborative and involves teams composed of faculty, post-doctoral fellows and students. ‘Meeting of the Minds’ is an opportunity to extend this collaboration and offer students the chance to engage and network with experts from local institutions.”

The collaborative aspect of the symposium especially impressed judge Stephan Vogel, Principal Scientist, Arabic Language Technologies, QCRI. He said: “‘Meeting of the Minds’ highlights the educational effort involved in creating a poster and presenting it as part of a team, which is what the students will have to do in the future when they attend conferences. The quality of the work is exceptional for undergraduates; it shows that faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar are doing a good job in mentoring these young minds.”
CMU-Q’s 8th annual ‘Meeting of the Minds’ research symposium
The winning entry, ‘Twitter Sentiment Analysis,’ was produced by a team of two students, Bin Wasi and Rukhsar Neyaz, with guidance from Dr Behrang Mohit, Assistant Professor of Computer Science. Bin Wasi also took second prize with his project ‘Using Technology to Help People Save Food Effortlessly,’ which he developed with faculty advisor Dr Thierry Sans, Assistant Teaching Professor of Computer Science. Third prize went to Noora Al Muftah, a computational biology student, who worked with faculty advisor Khalid Fakhro from WCMC-Q on the project ‘SNV-Check: A Quality Control Tool for Familial Exome Sequencing Data Based on the Sharing of Rare Genetic Mutations.’

The winning entry used a natural language processing algorithm developed by Neyaz and Bin Wasi to analyze thousands of tweets, to determine whether the tweeters felt positively, negatively or neutrally about the topics of their tweets – a process that, with users posting upwards of 5,000 tweets per second, it would be impossible for a human being to perform manually.

Before ‘Meeting of the Minds,’ Neyaz and Bin Wasi had presented their system at SemEval 2014, an international competition in computational semantic evaluation. The only undergraduates in the competition, Neyaz and Bin Wasi were delighted to take third place.

The sentiments expressed in tweets can be especially valuable to businesses or other entities seeking opinions because, unlike sentiments expressed in traditional opinion-gathering methods such as surveys and polls, tweets come directly from users and are not filtered or influenced by the content or presentation of the questions.

Neyaz and Bin Wasi capitalized on the value of unsolicited opinions by incorporating the computing results into a business model, an approach that Bin Wasi says arose from the structure of CMU-Q. “It is a great place to learn computer science in the context of business,” he said. “It offers a major called Information Systems, where the whole mission of the department is to connect existing technologies with business. Another major, Computer Science with Business, allows the student to create new technologies and then find the business value in them.

“This is unique. If you go to the website of SemEval 2014, you will never see the words ‘brand’ or ‘brand analysis.’

“The focus of the scientists is to get the work done, rather than searching for the value to the business community. At CMU-Q I am able to keep myself in the loop of how business works, so in that sense it is very helpful to be part of CMU-Q.”

Additional awards were presented on behalf of His Excellency Saleh Bin Mohammad Al Nabit, Minister of Development Planning and Statistics, by Dr Barak Yehya, an expert on institutional development at the ministry, to projects closely aligned with the Qatar National Development Strategy. Winners were: Fatima Al Saygh (advisor Jonathan Finkel); Aniish Sridhar (advisor John Gasper); Kenrick Fernandes (advisor Divakaran Liginlal); Aliya Hashim (advisor Divakaran Liginlal); and Dania Abed Rabbou (post-graduate; advisor Mohammad Hammoud).

For many of the participants, the work they presented will continue. Neyaz and Bin Wasi, for example, are completing a research paper based on their Twitter analysis system, which they will submit to the next SemEval conference.

As the students’ ideas work their way into the world, they will not only benefit the students themselves but also, potentially, help to grow the knowledge-based economy Qatar is striving to attain.