Graduate students receive fellowships to study life online, in the wild

Brian Gerber of Amherst, Mass., a graduate student in the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources, and Ricardo Quintana-Castillo of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, a Ph.D. student in the university's College of Engineering, each received 2008 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships. Although their research covers vastly different topics — one focuses on saving wildlife, the other deals with digital information overload — both issues reflect current problems.

   

While working in Colorado in 2007, Virginia Tech graduate student Brian Gerber took part in a lynx re-release. While working in Colorado in 2007, Virginia Tech graduate student Brian Gerber took part in a lynx re-release.

Gerber has been a wildlife research technician in such locales as Thailand, Angola, South Africa, and across the United States. Now, with the NSF Fellowship, the master’s degree candidate in fisheries and wildlife sciences leads his own research project. Gerber is studying carnivores in Madagascar to increase understanding of the lives and habitats of the wild creatures and how humankind is influencing them.

Quintana-Castillo, a student in computer science whose focus is personal information management (PIM), is addressing the challenge of how people keep, find, and organize information about themselves in social networks and other online venues.

Research in the wild

Gerber’s travels began before he became an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts. “I went to East Africa, and I was hooked,” he said. Since receiving his bachelor’s degree in 2000, he and his wife Belita Marine, also a wildlife research technician, have been monitoring carnivores in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; wolves, coyotes, and foxes in Yellowstone National Park; and bats in Maine. “Living in remote areas and getting paid, or at least having your expenses paid, is what we loved to do,” Gerber said.

   

A trail camera set by Brian Gerber is better suited for dark when it is tripped by wild animals. A trail camera set by Brian Gerber is better suited for dark when it is tripped by wild animals.

At Virginia Tech, Gerber has been a graduate teaching assistant since fall 2007, and has worked with Sarah Karpanty, assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife sciences. Together, they have researched Virginia Barrier Islands shorebirds. His activities and a perfect grade point average of 4.0 (on a 4.0 scale) since 2007 earned him the NSF Fellowship.

In Madagascar, Gerber is using trail cameras to research habitat preferences and estimate populations of fossa, Malagasy civet, ring-tailed mongoose, and broad-striped mongoose. Little is currently known about these carnivores, which often prey on lemurs, in Madagascar’s rain-forest habitat.

“Working in a rain forest is challenging, and Madagascar has very steep terrain,” Gerber said. “Lemur research has spanned decades, but carnivores are more difficult. They are rare or elusive, or both. We don’t have good numbers, and if we are going to conserve these animals, we need the numbers.”

Gerber, who plans to do academic research and to teach at some point in his future, said, “I might take time off again. But a career in wildlife is definitely my goal.”

Research on the Web

To develop PIM tools that will make life easier and information management better, Quintana-Castillo studies the different strategies and behaviors that people have when keeping and sharing information through social networking services. “It is human studies as much as computer science,” he said.

   

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow Ricardo Quintana-Castillo, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech, is  developing social network applications to help people manage information. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow Ricardo Quintana-Castillo, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech, is developing social network applications to help people manage information.

PIM, an area of human-computer interaction (HCI), has been receiving more attention because of the large quantities of digital information each person generates each day and throughout a lifetime. “I want to provide tools to help people deal with this information overload and to provide solutions to problems today and in the future — not only for professionals but for people in their everyday lives.”

Quintana-Castillo, whose advisor is computer science Associate Professor Manuel Pérez-Quiñones, said he developed his interest in the social aspects of PIM while working as a graduate research assistant on the development of a computer science assignment repository on top of the Facebook platform. Facebook is an online social network that allows users to connect with friends, family members, and colleagues. “The purpose was to provide a place where professors and students alike could actively store and share assignments so that they could collaborate and improve them over time,” Quintana-Castillo said

   

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow Ricardo Quintana-Castillo, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech, is  developing social network applications to help people manage information. Ricardo Quintana-Castillo displays some of the devices that people use every day. Quintana-Castillo's graduate research is focused on personal information management.

Quintana-Castillo received his Bachelor of Science degree in computer engineering from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez in 2003. As an undergraduate, he interned at IBM, where he developed and tested sofware. He was also an undergraduate research assistant with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. There, he developed enhancements to the user interface of a particle detector system. After graduating, he worked for three years at IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “I realized I wanted to study how software affects people and how to improve their lives through it,” he said.

In summer 2008, Quintana-Castillo worked as a research intern with an interdisciplinary team at IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., investigating and prototyping interactive search and information visualization techniques to improve IBM’s information technology services. “It made me realize once again that the problems we face with information are not only challenging but relevant to the current and future needs of users,” he said.

The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees in the United States and abroad.

NSF Fellows are expected to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Susan Trulove at strulove@vt.edu, or call (540) 231-5646.

Follow their work

   

A trail camera in Madagascar captured this image of a small Indian Civet, or Viverricula indica. A trail camera set by Brian Gerber in Madagascar captured this image of a small Indian Civet, or Viverricula indica.

In addition to his research, National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow Ricardo Quintana-Castillo has mentored undergraduate students through programs that are also sponsored by the NSF. In 2007, Quintana-Castillo worked with two undergraduate students from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, as part of the Human-Computer Interaction Research Experience.

During the 2007-08 year, Quintana-Castillo mentored two Virginia Tech undergraduate students through the Scholars of the Future program. 

For his reseearch, Brian Gerber has developed a website that includes wildlife and scenic photographs that he captured from some of his recent projects. Gerber has also posted images from the trail cameras and a video featuring time-lapse photos.

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