Experiencing AI: Artificial intelligence research is booming at Ohio State, and it’s opening doors for students

Posted: October 6, 2021
Tanya Berger-Wolf (middle), director of Ohio State’s Translational Data Analytics Institute, and undergrad students in her research lab, Cameron Erdman (left) and Craig Fouts, look at sensors on a tower at the Ohio State Airport. The tower is part of a study using artificial intelligence to understand different aspects of urban environments.

When Craig Fouts met Tanya Berger-Wolf this past spring, he was introduced to ways of seeing and using artificial intelligence (AI) that have fascinated him.

Berger-Wolf, director of Ohio State’s Translational Data Analytics Institute (TDAI), not only began advising Fouts on his honors research project on AI, but this summer she hired him as a research assistant to work on a national study that has multiple long-term implications.

The study — which is using a 30-foot tower at the Ohio State Airport for environmental research using AI methodology — is a Battelle-funded project that will serve as a pilot for multiple National Science Foundation AI efforts Ohio State researchers are leading. In the process, these studies are allowing undergraduate, graduate and PhD students exceptional and rare opportunities.

“Working in (Berger-Wolf’s) lab is really cool. I love it,” said Fouts, a senior double majoring in math and computer science. “I don’t want to just focus on code or machine learning; I’m really interested in ecological influences and taking inspiration from biology. That’s something I’ve found fascinating about working in her lab.

“The experience is totally different from working in a class. It’s great because you get the experience of applying things you’ve learned in a classroom and the experience of approaching problems you haven’t been taught how to solve.”

Fouts and other students in Berger-Wolf’s lab are experimenting with machine learning algorithms to understand different aspects of urban environments. The data they use is collected from sensors on the 30-foot mobile tower at the airport.

Those sensors are collecting such things as CO2 emissions, noise and pollution from the combustion engines in the airplanes taking off and landing at the airport.

“AI helps us put so many little puzzle pieces from different sources with different domains together into one big picture to answer big questions,” Berger-Wolf said.

TDAI -Tall
Ohio State students will work with a tower that's deployed as part of a study using artificial intelligence to understand different aspects of urban environments.

Along with TDAI, faculty and students from Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute, the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences are conducting studies as part of the project. For example, one of the sensors on the tower is from a project led by Huyen Le, an assistant professor of geography and core faculty of the Sustainability Institute, which is studying health impacts of traffic-related pollution.

Dema Alkashkish, a sophomore biomedical engineering major, is a research assistant on that project. Her job includes everything from deploying sensors that pull in data on air pollutants, like one she installed at the airport tower, to coding algorithms for the sensors to outreach to schools and organizations to install the sensors.

“A project like this exposes you to so many majors and disciplines; it’s been really cool to see how people from different backgrounds work together to solve problems,” Alkashkish said. “I’ve learned skills that will help me through every aspect of my life through this process.”

Bringing together various disciplines to attack big problems is a theme at Ohio State, and AI is quickly becoming a critical tool to get there.

The tower project is a pilot study for two major NSF projects led by Ohio State investigators and TDAI affiliates that will begin in October and November. Both projects focus on building and improving AI infrastructures, making technology better, faster and more accessible.

And because many Ohio State faculty members are involved in the projects, students at all levels are being recruited and hired to help in the research.

“If I was a student coming to Ohio State right now, I’d be super excited,” said Ness Shroff, the principal investigator for the AI Edge project. “Not only do you have an opportunity to be part of these institutes and work with professors who are very good at what they do, but you have an opportunity to work across different universities. In all of our programs, we are going to have opportunities for students to travel to other universities as well as take on internships with companies involved in the project.”

Along with those two institutes, Berger-Wolf will lead another major NSF endeavor.

“It’s not a coincidence that this is all happening at Ohio State,” Berger-Wolf said. “It’s because of the environment and expertise here. The strength of Ohio State is that you don’t have to ask whether ‘that’s a biology question’ or ‘that’s a computer science question.’ No, it’s a question we humans are asking, and we have the people across the spectrum of necessary expertise who are willing and able to find the answers to those questions.

“We’re way past the ivory tower model of research in universities. This is the translational part of the questions we can ask to truly impact our world.”

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