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Researcher of the Month

December 2015

Dennis Sosa 
Computer Engineering major, Class of 2017
EOP-AIM Program 

Research Mentor: 
Dr. Paul Fodor, Computer Science

Dennis Sosa, a Computer Engineering major/Computer Science minor and participant in the EOP-AIM & CSTEP programs, is very positive about his experiences at SB: “I actually love it!  I’ve gotten so many opportunities that have helped me, and I have met people who have guided me through my courses and helped me think about what I want to do in the future.”

This past summer, Dennis participated in the 2015 PSEG Explorations in STEM summer research program administered through Technology & Society, the Career Center and URECA, a program that provides summer support for undergraduate research in STEM fields, particularly to students with demonstrated financial need. Working under the mentorship of Dr. Paul Fodor of the Computer Science Department, Dennis researched “Efficient Power Delivery Using Artificial Intelligence Planning”: designing an efficient planning algorithm to implement power delivery in smart power grids, using Prolog, a general purpose logic programming language, and the XSB Prolog logic programming and deductive database system. Dennis is grateful for the PSEG program opportunity, and notes: "If they didn’t provide us with that funding, I would never have this opportunity to do research for the summer. But I also really liked that they provided us with workshops that helped me develop professionally..."

Dennis at SHPE conferenceDennis presented his PSEG-project at the 2015 Summer Research Symposium at the end of the summer, and more recently, at the Research and Innovation in STEM (RISE) symposium at the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) National Conference in Baltimore, with support from a URECA travel grant award. Dennis describes the SHPE conference experience to be satisfying and rewarding on many levels – providing opportunities to practice his presentation skills, to network and make professional contacts, and most importantly, providing inspiration for his future plans. After attending the SHPE conference, Dennis is now certain that he wants to pursue a graduate degree in Computer Science, as well as a career in software engineering.

At SB, Dennis is in the Honors Program within the Computer Engineering major, and is a member of IEEE-Eta Kappa Nu (Electrical & Computer Engineering Honor Society) and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. He has been on the Dean’s List every semester. He is also active in the SB chapter of SHPE, and is SHPE's current webmaster and previous E-Board Historian/End of the Year Banquet Chair; he also serves as a STEM tutor for the EOP/AIM program. Dennis is a graduate of Uniondale HS (Uniondale, NY), and is a first generation college student.

Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.  

The Interview:

Karen: Tell me about your current research at SB.
Dennis: Working with Professor Paul Fodor in the Computer Sciences Department, my project was to design an efficient planning algorithm to implement power delivery on smart power grids, using Prolog, a logic programming language; and XSB, a database system partially developed here at Stony Brook. We wanted to dedicate the summer project to the power industry, since the sponsor for my research was PSEG.

We made a graphical interface to display our project, which basically consisted of using artificial intelligence applications to find the most efficient way to deliver power from power plants to a data center—finding the shortest sequential plan to deliver power to a data center by turning on the least amount of power switches, which connect to junctions and to main power plants within the lower 48 states. Our algorithm searched the whole map (or the database from Prolog) and outputted all the possible paths in the map. The last one would be the shortest path, the most efficient way to deliver power to a selected data center.

Did you have previous research experience?
No, this was the first time I did research. I had always associated research with laboratory sciences, such as biology or chemistry. So when I found out about the PSEG Explorations in STEM program and started looking at the opportunities for research in my field and in software development, I was excited to get involved. And I didn’t have to go into a lab: It was just me, my computer, and communication with my professor.

How has your research enhanced your education?
Through this research experience, I definitely learned many new things that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. I expanded my knowledge of programming, the use of logic programming and the communication of making this interface (the Python-XSB interface). It was also a really good experience in learning de-bugging skills, new programming languages, and learning how certain programming languages work differently than others.

Was there anything particularly surprising you discovered while working on your project?
I was very surprised to learn that the XSB interface partially developed here at SBU has the power of communicating with other higher programming languages, such as Python and Java.  And I came to appreciate the power that I saw with Prolog: it has so many advantages. In other higher level programming languages, it may be harder to search certain databases than it is with Prolog. In the future, when I encounter certain problems, I may think back on how to use logic programming for solving certain problems.

What were the benefits of being involved in a summer research program?
The PSEG program was a great experience both because of the funding, and the workshops they provided. If they didn’t provide us with that funding, I would never have this opportunity to do research for the summer. But I also really liked that they provided us with workshops that helped me develop professionally and think about decisions for the future. There was a linked-in workshop where we talked about social media; another workshop on communicating science; another where we received help with our resumes from our graduate assistant…a lot of beneficial things for future career planning.

What is the next step for your research?
I had a good experience this summer working on this research project with Dr. Fodor, and I definitely want to continue to learn more about logic programming and applications to artificial intelligence.  We’ll be going in a new direction with artificial intelligence planning, using it for home automated systems--for example, the use of automated electric switches. I think that this work with artificial intelligence planning may become the basis for my senior honors research project for next fall.

Tell me about your experiences of presenting research.
For PSEG Explorations in STEM, I was able to present my project at the summer symposium. It was definitely a good experience! I enjoyed being able to present my work to a lot of the PSEG representatives who attended, and it did prepare me for presentations in the future. Because two weeks ago now, I went to the SHPE national conference and I was able to participate in their Research and Innovation in STEM (RISE) symposium. I was happy that I was able to present my poster at the conference, and the chance to get more practice in presenting is helpful too. I like talking about my project and I’m definitely happy to explain what I worked on this summer, again and again! The first time around, I found it more difficult to describe my project to someone who might not have a background in programming. But I definitely got more comfortable with it and I think I was able to explain my project more effectively at SHPE.  I enjoyed it that at the conference people seemed really interested in my project and asked me a lot of questions.

Tell me more about the conference.
As part of this program, I had the chance to attend a lot of workshops and learn more about applying to graduate school, applying to fellowships, and to hear about the benefits of research. Previously I was thinking of just getting my bachelor’s but after hearing from a lot of these students, this has inspired me to go to graduate school.  I’m planning now on getting some experience in the software industry, and then getting my master’s in Computer Science. I plan to look for opportunities to work in research software groups. At the SHPE conference, some of the representatives from companies recruiting for summer internships seemed to really like my research experience and background, and they asked me about it. 

Do you have any favorite experience with your research?
Towards the end of the program this past summer, I ran into this bug for the program we made. I was concentrating on trying to debug the code for many hours. But initially nothing was working and it was very frustrating. I just kept working on the code and I was so happy when I realized that it was just a matter of fixing 3 lines of code. With the type of research that we’re doing, a lot of online resources or textbook materials may not have solutions for the type of problems we encounter. One often has to figure it out by oneself, something that takes a lot of dedication and time. But after going through the process - once I got things to work, I was very very happy. 

How has your mentor helped you?
I met Professor Fodor in one of my Computer Science courses back in the spring. And I learned a lot from him during the course and built a good relationship with him by going to office hours and asking questions about certain problems I had during the course. When I learned about the PSEG program opportunity, I asked him if he would be my advisor for the summer and I was so glad that he said yes. It was a great experience working with him. I feel like I learned a lot from him in terms of using resources effectively. He is a good motivator too because he is a hard worker and I could see that in him and it motivated me to work hard as well looking for certain solutions in trying to solve a problem. Professor Fodor has a lot of students, a lot of different research projects and is a really busy person but he is inspiring as a teacher.

What advice do you have for other students?
Start early. If you have a professor that is doing research in a field that you’re interested in, don’t be scared to ask if there is an opportunity for you. Definitely look into URECA and the other programs. It’s definitely a good experience to learn outside the classroom environment, to learn material that you’re not learning from textbooks & lectures. It might change your view on your future career.

What is different about the experience of learning in a research environment?
I’d say the difference is the freedom of learning. In a classroom environment, you’re learning set textbook material, set lectures, you’re learning what they teach you. But when you’re doing research, you’re basically able to use any resources you want and basically solve the problem in the way you want to solve it--the way you come up with the solution There’s more creativity and freedom involved in the way that you get to solve certain problems.

Well, it's clear to see that you have thrived in the research environment.
I’m so happy that I was able to participate in the Explorations in STEM program. I remember when I first heard about the program, being excited about all the benefits it can give you.  And the experience has motivated me, and given me a different idea of what I actually want to do in the future.