2019 Carolina Data Challenge draws 250 students for third annual data science hackathon

October 21, 2019
Carolina Data Challenge participants gather in Chapman Hall for the opening ceremony
Carolina Data Challenge participants gather in Chapman Hall for the opening ceremony
a team of students works on their project in the lobby of Sitterson Hall
A team of students works on their project in the lobby of Sitterson Hall

Sitterson Hall played host to more than 250 students during the third annual Carolina Data Challenge, which took place October 5-6, 2019. This year’s event was the largest yet, with participation up 60 percent from 2018.

Carolina Data Challenge is a 24-hour data science hackathon run by the Carolina Analytics and Data Science (CADS) Club and hosted by the UNC Department of Computer Science. Participants have the opportunity to “hack” on a dataset from either the financial, technology or non-profit sector, and prizes are awarded to the teams who provide the best data visualization, most valuable insights and best use of outside data, as well as to the top beginner team.

In addition to being a competition, the event is also a valuable opportunity to develop data science skills and experience, build community with fellow students and network with potential employers. No prior experience in data science is necessary, and there are numerous resources for beginners, including industry mentors and workshops and practice problems to develop skills. Prior to the event, CADS coordinated an introductory workshop and resume review session that was open to all students.

Carolina Data Challenge is one manifestation of the rapidly growing interest in data science at UNC-Chapel Hill. As the university plans to launch a new data science initiative, the 2019 hackathon featured 51 total submissions, and more than 70 percent of the participants were UNC students.

Carolina Data Challenge 2019 was sponsored by CapTech, Valassis, the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) and the National Consortium for Data Science, Fidelity, SAS, Barings, the Institute for Advanced Analytics, EY and Quantworks. The keynote address was given by Elliot Inman of SAS.

UNC CS goes to 2019 Grace Hopper Celebration

October 17, 2019

Women from UNC CS pose for a photo at Grace Hopper Celebration 2019 in Orlando, FloridaThe 2019 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), “the world’s largest gathering of women technologists”, hosted by AnitaB.org, was held October 1-4 in Orlando, Florida. Over 50 UNC CS women attended the conference, including 40 who received scholarships from the department to attend. The group was also joined by UNC CS alumni who attended and even presented workshops at the event.

The Grace Hopper Celebration offers students the opportunity to engage with potential employers, interview for internships and full-time positions, attend workshops and other sessions from key industry experts, and network with fellow women in tech.

Shannon Goad, an attendee and senior majoring in computer science and mathematics, shared, “The most impactful part of Grace Hopper Celebration for me was seeing all of the attendees uplift each other during the intense networking and interviewing. There was a spirit of mutual support instead of competition, and everyone was truly celebrating each other’s successes. It was great to feel so welcomed by a community in tech, and know that everyone was genuinely cheering each other on.” 

Conference attendees gained important resources to find success and further a career in tech. More than 80 percent of attendees are offered a full-time job or a first or second internship as a result of attending the conference. 

Those in attendance also have the opportunity to attend workshops and lectures from some of the women leaders in tech. GHC 2019 attendee and junior computer science major Sarah Bost, was excited and inspired by attending a fireside chat with AnitaB.org CEO Brenda Darden Wilkerson and COO Jacqueline Bouvier Copeland.

“These women have dedicated their careers to promoting diversity in technology, and it was so inspiring to hear about their experiences and their vision for the future,” Bost said. “As a young woman starting my career, the future of technology is really important to me. Being at a conference where all of the top tech companies and students were passionate about AnitaB.org’s commitment to achieving a workplace that is 50/50 by 2025 allowed me to feel excited about my future career in a more gender-neutral workplace.”

Attending the Grace Hopper Celebration can be quite costly and out-of-reach for many college-aged students. In 2016, the Department of Computer Science, with support from corporate partners, began offering scholarships for students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration. Recognizing the importance of providing future leaders and women in tech with the opportunity to connect with industry representatives that are supportive of a more open and accepting tech community, there was a commitment to ensure UNC CS was represented as a leader committed to the development of women in tech. Opportunities such as these can truly be life changing for students. With the help of partners and donors, the department has sent more than 160 women to four Grace Hopper Celebrations.

Thanks to CapTech and CoStar Group for supporting UNC CS at the 2019 Grace Hopper Celebration!

UNC researchers receive $941,000 NIH R01 grant to utilize voice assistant devices in post-treatment cancer care

October 3, 2019
Clockwise from top: Shahriar Nirjon, Lixin Song, Mohit Bansal
Clockwise from top: Shahriar Nirjon, Lixin Song, Mohit Bansal
Examples of decision-making and natural language feedback from AURA to patients
Examples of decision-making and natural language feedback from AURA to patients

A team of UNC-Chapel Hill researchers led by assistant professor Shahriar Nirjon (Computer Science) was awarded a National Institute of Health (NIH) R01 grant worth $941,000 over four years. The grant supports research to monitor and provide feedback to post-treatment cancer patients, using a combination of radio and audio sensing technologies.

The project, dubbed “AURA” (a combination of AUdio and RAdio), is a collaboration between Nirjon and Mohit Bansal in the Department of Computer Science and Lixin Song in the School of Nursing. Existing audio-based voice assistant devices, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, will be augmented with radio-based RF sensing technologies, enabling the devices to record more information from their surroundings and provide contextually relevant feedback to the patient. The device will combine audio and radio sensing to gather relevant patient information automatically and interactively, and store patient’s health records into an electronic system used by the entire care team, including the patient, family members, caregivers and healthcare providers at remote sites. The project will study the performance of AURA when deployed in the homes of post-surgery colorectal and bladder cancer patients, but AURA’s design is generic and extendable to meet the requirements of a wide range of post-treatment self-care scenarios.

The grant is awarded through a cross-agency program called the National Science Foundation Smart and Connected Health (NSF SCH) program. NSF SCH is an extremely competitive program, the purpose of which is to support the development of technologies, analytics and models supporting next-generation health and medical research through high-risk, high-reward advances in computer and information science, engineering and technology, behavior and cognition. Throughout the four-year project, Nirjon will lead research on radio-frequency-based human activity recognition, Bansal will lead research on natural language feedback and Song will lead the study of post-treatment colorectal and bladder cancer patients using the developed technology.

Department of Computer Science opens doors for 2019 Middle School/High School Open House

September 27, 2019
Undergraduate student Victor Murta shows the Nao robot during the 2019 MS/HS Open House
Undergraduate student Victor Murta demos the Nao robot to a group of visitors in the Computational Robotics Lab

The UNC Department of Computer Science welcomed hundreds of visitors to its fourth annual Middle School and High School Open House on Saturday, September 14. The outreach event allows attendees to see demonstrations of computer science research and hardware and learn about how to prepare to study computer science in college.

Inside Sitterson Hall and Brooks Building, guests could experience 22 unique demos spread across three floors, including seven different laboratory spaces. These included virtual and augmented reality devices, a humanoid robot, automatic object detection and language generation from video, an autonomous RC car, a hackable arcade game used in undergraduate computer security courses, a 3D printer, a data visualization tool utilized by radiologists, and much more. Demos were staffed by undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members from the Department of Computer Science, giving visitors the opportunity to ask questions about department life as well as research.

High school students and their parents could sign up for one of three 45-minute information sessions to learn about computer science at UNC and ask questions about the major and preparing for college. The information sessions were led by Department Chair Kevin Jeffay and featured a panel of undergraduate student ambassadors.

The Middle School and High School Open House is one of the department’s two open house outreach events held each year. If you are interested in learning more about computer science at UNC, we invite you to visit Sitterson Hall and Brooks Building during the UNC Science Expo on April 4, 2020. The next Middle School and High School Open House will be held on a Saturday in the fall of 2020. You can learn more at cs.unc.edu/outreach.

For information on applying to UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergraduate student, visit admissions.unc.edu.

Focus Carolina: Mohit Bansal

September 24, 2019

Mohit Bansal is an assistant professor in the computer science department in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also director of Carolina’s Natural Language Processing Lab.

Jane Calloway, Sunday, September 22nd, 2019

Mohit Bansal is an assistant professor in the computer science department in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also director of Carolina’s Natural Language Processing Lab. The lab’s research interests are in natural language processing and machine learning, with a particular focus on developing human-like language generation and dialogue models, and multimodal artificial intelligence agents that combine language with vision and robotics.

Read the transcript of this episode

Hase Awarded Prestigious Royster Society Fellowship

August 26, 2019
Peter Hase

Peter Hase

First-year computer science doctoral student Peter Hase was awarded the Royster Society of Fellows Recruitment Fellowship by the UNC Graduate School. The fellowship provides full tuition cost, health insurance, and funds for professional travel for five years, as well as a $24,000 stipend for two years and a partial-stipend for three to encourage external fellowships. Beyond funding support, key benefits of membership in the society of fellows also include interdisciplinary learning, networking, and professional development and social opportunities. Among these is the opportunity to teach an interdisciplinary seminar for first-year undergraduates.

The Royster fellowship program selects students with the highest academic potential and the most impressive record of achievement in undergraduate education and work and life experiences. It is the University’s most selective and prestigious interdisciplinary fellowship program.

Hase’s research interests lie in developing interpretable machine learning methods, with a focus on the domain of natural language processing (NLP). An important goal of this research is the design of machine learning systems that make decisions in a way that is transparent to people and open to scrutiny. He will be working on these kinds of problems at UNC with professor Mohit Bansal in the UNC-NLP Lab.

Hase previously received a bachelor’s degree in statistical science from Duke University, where he did research on interpretable computer vision techniques and algorithmic poetry generation with professors Cynthia Rudin and Sayan Mukherjee. His work on interpretable computer vision will be published this year at the 2019 AAAI Conference on Human Computation and Crowdsourcing (HCOMP). He attended Duke as a recipient of the AJ Tannenbaum Trinity Scholarship, a four-year merit scholarship. As an undergraduate student, Hase was also heavily involved with the school’s Effective Altruism club, a student group whose mission is to build an enabling community for students who are trying to find careers where they can improve the world. After leading Duke’s club for two years, he now plans to work with UNC’s chapter.

For a full list of current fellows, visit the Graduate School website. For more information about Peter, visit his webpage.

Four NIBIB grantees win prestigious Presidential early career awards

July 23, 2019

Four NIBIB grantees are among more than 300 recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) announced by President Donald J. Trump on July 2, 2019, and to be awarded at a ceremony on July 25.  The PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology. Recipients announced this year hail from universities in 38 states across the country.

“The PECASE award is a national honor that puts a spotlight on an exceptionally talented group of NIBIB grantees at a time of unprecedented breakthroughs in advancing human health,” said NIBIB Director Bruce J. Tromberg, Ph.D. “These promising young scientists span the country and a fascinating spectrum of bioengineering research, from biomaterials to biomedical devices. Each awardee represents promising talent whose commitment to their innovative projects will engineer the future of health.”

Darren J. Lipomi, Ph.D., associate professor of nanoengineering, University of California, San Diego, is a 2015 PECASE nominee, just awarded this year. His NIBIB grant is an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award (DP2EB022358) supporting scientists who undertake novel approaches to major challenges in biomedical research. Lipomi develops wearable and implantable medical sensors, including stretchable, biodegradable, and self-healing semiconducting polymer materials. Stretchable electronics are designed to seamlessly integrate with the body contours to monitor vital signs, muscle activity, metabolic changes, and organ function. His project aims to create a new class of semiconducting polymer material that has the mechanical properties of human skin. This transparent electronic skin will be soft and elastic, sense contact, absorb blunt force, and will self-heal when damaged—all the while providing continuous and wireless health-monitoring.

Ron Alterovitz, Ph.D., professor of computer science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a 2017 PECASE nominee. His NIBIB grant (R01EB024864) aims to improve the survival rate for lung cancer by enabling earlier stage diagnosis using a novel robotic device. The project is creating a new robotic system that deploys a needle that can semi-automatically steer through lung tissue to safely biopsy nodules. Currently used instruments cannot accurately access many nodules. The innovative robotic system will enable access to nodules throughout the lung, increase targeting accuracy, and avoid major bleeding by steering the needle around larger blood vessels. The project brings together a multidisciplinary team that spans expertise in interventional pulmonology, cardiothoracic surgery, radiology, mechanical engineering, and several subareas of computer science, including artificial intelligence and medical image analysis.

Xudong Wang, Ph.D., professor and associate chair of materials science and engineering, University of Wisconsin – Madison, is a 2016 PECASE nominee. His NIBIB grant (R01EB021336) supports the development of self-powered implantable biomedical devices for continuous, real-time sensing, monitoring, and other vital health functions. A variety of energy sources in the human body, such as limb movement, respiration, and heartbeat can provide sufficient power for small biomedical devices. The project explores innovative nanotechnology to create self-sufficient power supplies for implantable devices used in areas such as wound healing and weight control.

Angela K. Pannier, Ph.D., professor of biological systems engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a 2017 PECASE nominee. Her NIBIB grant (DP2EB025760) is an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. Her lab is developing more than 10 projects related to biomaterials and gene delivery systems. The award will support development of novel methods that improve use of adult stem cells in gene therapy, a promising tool for treating a variety of diseases.

Established in 1996, the PECASE acknowledges the contributions scientists and engineers have made to the advancement of science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM) education and to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, and community outreach. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinates the PECASE with participating departments and agencies.The PECASE awards ceremony will take place the morning of July 25, 2019, at Daughters of the American Revolution, Constitution Hall.  NIBIB-nominated recipients will be celebrated at an NIBIB seminar on the NIH campus on the same day.

Read the July 2, 2019, White House announcement here.

Computer science professor receives Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

July 22, 2019

Ron Alterovitz was selected for the award, which recognizes the pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology, and the commitment to community service through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.

By the College of Arts & Sciences, Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Computer Science Professor Ron Alterovitz was recognized with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers who are in the early stages of their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology.

Recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and for their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinates the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers with over a dozen departments and agencies. Only around 100 recipients are named per year.

Alterovitz was named a recipient by the White House in a press release on July 2. He was nominated for the award by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the National Institutes of Health. He is the only recipient named in the White House press release who is currently at Carolina. Alterovitz is the ninth researcher from UNC-Chapel Hill to receive the award since its inception 23 years ago and the first recipient in computer science.

Alterovitz’s research focuses on robotics for medical applications. With support from NIH, Alterovitz and his research group are developing a new medical robot that can enable earlier, less invasive and more accurate diagnosis of lung cancer. Lung cancer is currently the deadliest form of cancer in the United States, killing more Americans than breast, prostate and colorectal cancer combined.

Alterovitz is leading a cross-disciplinary team of researchers at Computer Science, the UNC School of Medicine and Vanderbilt University to create a robotic steerable needle capable of autonomously navigating to sites in the human body. The new robot has the potential to automatically curve around vasculature and other sensitive anatomical structures in the body, thereby reducing negative side effects, while safely and accurately reaching difficult-to-access nodules throughout the lung for biopsy and treatment.

Bansal receives NSF CAREER Award

July 22, 2019
Mohit Bansal NSF CAREER Award

Mohit Bansal NSF CAREER Award

Dr. Mohit Bansal, assistant professor of computer science at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of the UNC-NLP Lab, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

This five-year, $450,000 grant, titled “CAREER: Semantic Multi-Task Learning for Generalizable and Interpretable Language Generation”, will support his continued research on enhancing natural language generation (NLG) models with crucial linguistic-semantic knowledge skills. These skills include logical entailment to avoid contradictory and unrelated information with respect to the input, saliency to extract the most important information subsets, and discourse structure to enforce coherent order in the generated text. The project will focus on interpretable and generalizable NLG approaches and the release of a public suite of such knowledge skills and NLG frameworks, eventually allowing the technology to be widely accessible and societally impactful via diverse real-world applications in human-robot interaction and collaboration.

Bansal joined the Department of Computer Science in 2016. Prior to joining UNC, he was a Research Assistant Professor at the Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago. He received his Bachelor of Technology in computer science and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and received his Doctor of Philosophy in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.

UNC professor’s high-tech robot promises earlier detection of lung cancer

July 19, 2019

by WRAL TechWire staff — July 19, 2019

CHAPEL HILL — Imagine a high-tech robot that can be used to help detect lung cancer before it’s too late.

It might sound like a scene from a sci-fi film. But thanks to the work of UNC Chapel Hill professor Ron Alterovitz and his cross-disciplinary team of researchers, it could soon be a reality.

With the support from the National Institute of Health, he and his group are developing a new medical robot that can enable “earlier, less invasive, and more accurate” diagnosis of lung cancer.

“The new robot has the potential to automatically curve around vasculature and other sensitive anatomical structures in the body, thereby reducing negative side effects, while safely and accurately reaching difficult-to-access nodules throughout the lung for biopsy and treatment,” UNC said in a statement.

The team includes researchers at UNC Computer Science, the UNC School of Medicine and Vanderbilt University.

Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, accounting for 2.1 million new cases and 1.8 million deaths last year.

In the US, the American Cancer Society estimates:

  • About 228,150 new cases of lung cancer (116,440 in men and 111,710 in women) in 2019
  • About 142,670 deaths from lung cancer (76,650 in men and 66,020 in women) in 2019

The work hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Alterovitz recently received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government to outstanding scientists and engineers.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinates the PECASE with over a dozen departments and agencies. Only around 100 recipients are named per year.