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Students Tackle Research Challenges Using Latest Technology
Iowa Ag Connection - 02/08/2018

University of Iowa undergraduates work shoulder to shoulder with leading experts in labs where virtual reality and other high-tech tools are put to use daily to improve our world. This experience allows students to discover new academic interests and intellectual passions, meet important professional and personal mentors, and find career paths they didn't even know existed.

For UI junior Anna Seydel, a job at the Center for Computer Aided Design (CCAD)--which houses Santos, a digital model of a soldier used to predict musculoskeletal stress and fatigue--led to a surprise revelation.

Founded in 1981, the Center for Computer Aided Design is a multidisciplinary research center within the University of Iowa College of Engineering that conducts basic and applied research in computer modeling and simulation. More than 150 researchers in 16 labs--including the Virtual Soldier Research Program--collaborate under the CCAD umbrella, advancing knowledge and innovation in the fields of engineering, medicine, technology, transportation, and more.

"When I first started college, I was a biomedical engineer. But when I started working here, I was doing a lot of code and programming and debugging," says Seydel, who hails from Solon, Iowa. "As a result, I decided to pick up a computer science double major because it turns out I really love it; it's crazy interesting."

UI senior Alec LaVelle has a similar story. When a friend told him about a job opening at the university's National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), the car enthusiast and industrial engineering major immediately applied. Soon after he was hired as a scenario developer, LaVelle began using specialized software to create virtual road trips, complete with traffic lights, roadside signage, and driving hazards.

Although he often wondered about post-graduation career plans, LaVelle says he is now confident about his next move.

"I'd really like to stay on at NADS," he says. "Just being a part of driving research is really cool. I think experience in this field--and with the type of technology available at NADS--will look great on my resume. It's a very unique skill set."

An automobile enthusiast who has retrofitted and raced cars since he was a teenager--and who belongs to Iowa Baja, a campus club that designs, constructs, and races a Baja car as part of an international university competition--LaVelle says his job at NADS has allowed him to gain knowledge and hands-on expertise that he wouldn't have had if he'd stuck to classroom lectures and group projects.

"My work at NADS has given me a lot of experiences that I didn't know I was going to have," says LaVelle. "It made my college experience a lot more interesting, and I believe it has made me a more well-rounded person and a better engineer."

A typical work day for LaVelle, who is from Norwalk, Iowa, begins with a quick huddle with Timothy Brown, a senior researcher and expert in driving research and cognitive-systems engineering. Once LaVelle has his assignment, he gets to work--spending much of his time independently creating virtual driving tests for research subjects, the results of which are used to improve driving safety and perfect automation technology such as crash and lane-departure warnings.

After he's created a driving scenario, LaVelle gets in the driving simulator to test his work for glitches and inconsistencies. NADS is home to a collection of some of the world's most reliable and renowned driving simulators--some big enough to accommodate the cab of a semi truck, others small enough to place on an office desktop. LaVelle uses all of them.

"I drive any scenario hundreds of times before we run it in a study in the simulator," he says. "When you're in the simulator driving a scenario, you really do feel like it's real. It is as technologically close as you can get to actual driving."

For someone who loves to participate in organized road races, LaVelle says he's fortunate to be doing something that feeds his academic, professional, and personal interests.

"The fact that I'm an undergraduate and I'm working with some of the most sophisticated driving simulators in the world, well, there are days that it just feels surreal," he says. "When I tell people about what I do at NADS, they think it's pretty cool. It's a very unique position that I have here, and I really enjoy it."

Another student employee at NADS is Ryan Aguirre, a senior mechanical engineering major from Springfield, Illinois. Aguirre's work focuses on the mechanical and technical retrofitting necessary to execute realistic driving simulations. He works on the hollowed-out cabs of sedans, SUVs, and semi trucks that, depending on study needs, are mounted inside the NADS-1 simulator, a massive machine that uses independent actuators to simulate road vibration and a 360-degree field of view to mimic a driver's perspective. NADS-1 has the largest range of driving positions in the nation and the second largest in the world.

The National Advanced Driving Simulator, a division of CCAD, is a self-sustained transportation safety research center at the University of Iowa's Research Park that utilizes world-class driving simulators and instrumented vehicles to conduct research for private and public partners. NADS researchers specialize in the connection between humans and vehicles, including vehicle safety systems, driver impairment, driver distraction, and vehicle automation.

NADS research saves lives, improves motorists' quality of life, advances the state of the art in driving simulation, and improves the efficiency and productivity of the automotive industry. The NADS-1 simulator has the largest motion envelope of any driving simulator in the U.S. and the second largest in the world.

Besides NADS-1, which is housed in a huge warehouse-like structure, Aguirre also works on mini-simulators comprised of a row of computer screens, a driver's seat, steering wheel, and dashboard. Some of the smallest simulators consist of a single computer screen and a video-game steering wheel.

"I had to learn everything about these simulators, including how they are built and wired," Aguirre says. "When I started, I had no idea what I would be getting into, but I love the work and I'm glad I got the position."

On a recent day, Aguirre headed to the garage area where the vehicle cabs are stored and jumped into the driver's seat of a Toyota Camry. The car's center console had been removed, exposing the mechanics of the gearbox. Using wrenches, screwdrivers, and other tools, Aguirre retrofits the gearbox so that when a research subject shifts gears during a virtual simulation, the sensation will match the sensation of shifting gears in a real car on a real road.

"We get to do a lot of hands-on stuff, a lot of assembly and fabrication," Aguirre says as he moves from the driver's seat to the trunk of the sedan, where he tweaks an onboard computer. Details are important in virtual reality. Researchers need clean data in order to make accurate safety and technical recommendations.

As Aguirre prepares for the future, he says his job at NADS has helped distinguish him from other applicants. When interviewing, Aguirre says hiring managers often want to learn more about his work in virtual reality and automobile automation. A week before walking across the stage to accept his diploma, Aguirre already had landed his first "real" job: working as an emissions regulatory engineer for Mercedes-Benz.

Once Aguirre and LaVelle have done their work setting up the physical and digital sides of the simulation, it's up to UI seniors Julianne Finken and Emma Ciborowski to put a driver behind the wheel, a job that requires them to contact and screen dozens of potential study participants.

Finken, a senior from Winterset, Iowa, is an anthropology major who says she wanted a student job that would allow her to learn more about academic research.

"It seemed like a really interesting opportunity, especially for an undergraduate," says Finken, who found out about the NADS job through the UI's HireaHawk online job recruitment platform. "Plus, I really wanted to work with the driving simulators."

Recently, Finken walked a visitor through the steps she takes when a study participant arrives for a simulation. After greeting the participant, Finken takes them to a prep room where she briefs them on the details of the study, the potential risks, and time commitment. She asks participants to sign a consent form and gathers personal information, such as their age, marital status, and level of education.

With the prep phase complete, Finken escorts the participant to the simulator, makes sure they are comfortably seated behind the steering wheel, and explains how the simulator works. Each participant gets one practice drive before the study begins. At the end of the virtual trip, Finken conducts a short wellness survey and gives each participant a breath mint and bottle of water.

NADS conducts studies for private companies that rely on the laboratory to test safety devices, including lane-departure warnings and blind-spot monitoring, before they go to market. NADS also conducts studies on driver drowsiness, drunk driving, and drugged driving. A large study can require 100 or more participants.

"Students play an important role in our research," says Dawn Marshall, NADS research manager and an expert in human factors engineering. "They conduct research literature reviews, make the calls to recruit study participants, and run the simulations. We depend on them quite a bit."

Ciborowski, the senior who works alongside Marshall and Finken, says she took the simulator job because of her interest in automobile ergonomics and human factors in industrial design. She's now looking at graduate programs in engineering management that will allow her to continue working in the field.

"My work with the simulators at NADS has helped me think about my career and my future," says Ciborowski. "I'm looking at graduate programs that focus on automation and simulation. It's something that I could see myself doing in the long run."

Back at the virtual soldier lab across campus, Seydel also sees her experience as a launchpad to a future career. She's got a summer internship at a software development firm in Kansas City, Missouri, and plans to continue her work with Santos when she returns to the UI in the fall.

"When I was interviewing for my internship, I was asked about my previous work with coding," says Seydel. "I talked a lot about the Santos project. Sure, I've had school projects with coding, but it's not the same experience you have when you work in a lab or in the real world. I think my work with Santos has been really helpful in promoting my experience and getting my resume noticed."

Looking forward to her graduation in 2018, Seydel says she's starting to think seriously about a career in research.

"When I first came to college, I thought I wanted to get stuff done and get out in four years," she says. "But I really appreciate working on the edge of technology because you're constantly being exposed to new things. Finding things that no one else has found yet is much more fun than following protocols and guidelines. Research has opened up another future for me."

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