Summer plans

My first post-graduation plans have been finalized: I'll be returning to the fine world of software development and robotics for a summer internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I'll be working with a diverse bunch of engineers and interns on what I expect will be super exciting, super cool projects.


_red and blue simulated robots in a flat simulated world_

On Friday, I turned in my undergraduate cognitive science thesis. It's been a year in the making -- I started brainstorming ideas last April, spent all summer reading up on relevant literature, and all of this school year developing my model, programming the simulation, running experiments, and finally, writing about all of that.

It's a little weird to realize that I don't have to constantly be thinking about this project any more. I don't have to be, but ever since handing it in, my thoughts continue to swirl around what further analyses to do on the data I collected, how to fix up the studies I did to get more powerful results, which studies would make sense as the next step...

Here's the abstract:

A biologically inspired predator-prey study of the effects of emotion and communication on emergent group behavior

Any agent that functions successfully in a constantly changing world must be able to adapt its behavior to its current situation. In biological organisms, emotion is often highlighted as a crucial system for generating adaptive behavior. This paper presents a biologically-inspired predator-prey model to investigate the effectiveness of an emotion-like system in guiding the behavior of artificial agents, implemented in a set of simulated robots. The predator's behavior was governed by a simple subsumption hierarchy; the prey selected actions based on direct sensory perceptions dynamically integrated with information about past motivational/emotional states. Aspects of the prey's emotion system were evolved over time. The first study examined the interactions of a single prey with the predator, indicating that having an emotion system can led to more diverse behavioral patterns, but may not lead to optimal action selection strategies. In the second study, groups of prey agents were evolved. These agents began to utilize alarm signaling and displayed fear contagion, with more group members surviving than in groups of emotionless prey. These results point to the pivotal role emotion plays in social scenarios. The model adds to a critical body of research in which important aspects of biological emotion are incorporated into the action selection mechanisms of artificial agents to achieve more adaptive, context-dependent behavior.


three VC women foilists sitting in green chairs, backs to the camera

A new semester...

Long time, no writing -- it's the start of a new semester (my last semester!) and I've been busy with a number of different things:

  • The VC Women's Fencing team. We're in full competition mode. We conquered in Cleveland recently, vanquished difficult foes at Brown University, and are gearing up for a big match at Wellesley next Sunday, which will decide whether we claim the Northeast Conference Championship this year!

  • My undergraduate cognitive science thesis. I'm looking at the emergent behavior of a group of simulated prey robots that can communicate with each other about the presence of a predator. I have questions about communication, environment, and motivation. Being a year-long project, I'm supposedly halfway through, though in reality, it's not so clear-cut. I spent all summer reading papers and doing background research, filled last semester with hypotheses, possible architectures, and more background research, wrote up a first draft this winter break, and am now hard at work on the simulation itself.

  • Taking photos of the weather. An unusually large amount of snow has fallen at Vassar -- what better to do than document it with a camera? (Click for larger versions.)

snow-covered lake, blue skies, sunshine

Sunset Lake II

dark trees, branches laden with clumps of snow

Snow Forest

a flock of round picnic tables, cream-colored umbrellas shading benches of snow, with the buildings of Cleveland rising in the background

Winter picnic in Cleveland

  • Figuring out my post-graduation life. On the advice of many folks, I'm not heading immediately to grad school. My enthusiasm for learning, research, and knowledge hasn't vanished -- quite the contrary. I'm going to spend at least a year exploring the places outside the classroom, longer depending on where I end up. Academia-land? The wide world beyond? Still up in the air.


_Me, looking remarkably awesome and nerdy, in front of the NASA meatball_

Not your everyday summer job

This summer, I've been working for NASA as an intern in the Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars Program. In a one-sentence summary, I'm working with a systems engineering team to develop and integrate the software and hardware needed for both indoor and outdoor tests of autonomous, unmanned multi-vehicle flight control.

But what does that mean, in terms of what I actually do?

It means the past seven weeks have been spent laboring over keyboards, switching between C, C++, Java, and Processing. I've carried my lab's miniature Parking Lot Exploration Rover outside in 105ºF weather to test a navigation algorithm. I've learned about PID controls, GPS sensors, and radio communication. I've evaluated ground control station software, delved into the depths of an open source flight simulator, and discovered how tricky network protocols can be. I've written software for 3D data display programs, data parsers, and communication links. I've learned that when you're one of a team of ten interns, all tackling pieces of the same large project, communication is crucial.

I'm enjoying this internship immensely. Vassar News just released an ego-boosting article about me and my summer, which I suggest you check out.

You’ll be hearing more from me on this subject. Stay tuned.