Unique Program Offers Campus Research Opportunities for Online Students

From her home more than 800 miles away, Georgia Tech online master's student Jasmine Tata is monitoring fish in aquariums at Georgia Tech.

Tata is a New York-based QA analyst and project manager. She started the Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program in Fall 2022 and joined FishStalkers last year.

The student-led research program is part of the School of Biological Sciences' McGrath Lab. Its researchers use machine learning, computer vision, and other technologies to better understand the evolution of animal behaviors.

One of the lab's research projects studies Lake Malawi cichlids to explore connections between observed behavior and brain function.

The FishStalkers are vital to the project. They collect video, depth, and other data from individual fish using Raspberry Pi single-board computers. This information, coupled with open-source code they developed, allows the group to track, monitor, and classify the behaviors of a fish as it builds and maintains its bower, which is a sand structure these cichlids use to attract mates.

Along with monitoring the research tanks, Tata's contributions include improving the automated collection and analysis of data streaming from the Pis. She's also helping to adapt the data pipeline to work with yellow-head, orange-cap, and other cichlid species.

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"I've enjoyed learning more about new problems in a relatively unfamiliar field. In a pure computer science-focused lab, I never would experience the frustrations of data collection that come with biological subjects," said Tata.

"The fish builds bowers on its own schedule, and data collection must accurately capture this, regardless of weekends or holidays."

Tata says her experience with FishStalkers has given her new ideas about presenting data to non-technical team members. The team uses a spreadsheet integrated with data collection scripts running on the Raspberry Pis. The spreadsheet allows someone without technical knowledge to pause, upload data, or start new trials simply by toggling a dropdown.

"This has given me a lot of ideas about how to meet people where they are in terms of technical skills when it comes to user interface design and has encouraged me to learn more about human-computer interaction," said Tata.

Tata learned about the FishStalkers research group when its founder, Breanna Shi, reached out through the OMSCS Slack study channel. Shi developed the group through Georgia Tech's Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program as a mentorship program.

"Given their real-world computer science experience, I wanted to see if there were OMSCS students interested in collaborating on FishStalkers projects and assisting in the mentorship of undergraduate researchers," said Shi. 

Shi is a third-year Ph.D. student studying bioinformatics with minors in machine learning and higher education. She created FishStalkers as a mentorship program because she recognized that undergraduate and masters-level students could feel less valued or isolated in research environments.

"The FishStalkers model empowers all its researchers with the respect and responsibility as a full team member. Whether it's your first week as a FishStalker or your last, you will complete tasks that benefit the research team and yourself," said Shi.

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Tata's experience in the business world made her a good fit for the FishStalkers program. Shi says Tata contributes valuable insight to the group as a mentor because most students approach the program from a purely academic viewpoint.

"Jasmine, like other OMSCS students, works full-time and attends the OMSCS program part-time. Her roles as a project manager and a software QA analyst allow her to contribute a unique perspective to the FishStalkers group," said Shi.

In addition to sharing her experience mentoring two OMSCS students this semester, Tata has helped Shi overcome some of the inherent challenges of long-distance collaboration. These include creating a sense of interpersonal connection among in-person and remote research team members.

Group meetings host a virtual link to enhance the online research experience. Every member provides progress updates during the sessions. The researchers also virtually check in and out of their research hours in a shared group chat and describe the work completed during their check-out.

"FishStalkers also runs a monthly lab-buddy program where a researcher is paired with a new buddy each month to schedule a 30-minute meeting to chat and learn about each other's work," said Shi.

"These strategies benefit OMSCS students in our group and provide a positive research environment for junior researchers. We seek to incorporate innovative strategies to create an accessible research environment for all students interested in participating in our research," said Shi.

FishStalkers has been such a success that Shi is expanding the model. This fall, Shi will work with OMSCS Executive Director David Joyner and OMSCS Associate Director of Research Nick Lytle to connect OMSCS students with interdisciplinary research projects in labs across campus.

"My role will be to establish relationships between data collectors and data analyzers to provide a service to non-technical labs across campus and a valuable research experience for OMSCS students," said Shi.

"We will be building from my existing work in image processing in the McGrath Lab and expanding to other labs with data analysis needs. I am very excited to have the experience of growing as a collaborator."

News images
A variety of brightly colored Lake Malawi cichlids share a freshwater aquarium.
Georgia Tech OMSCS student Jasmine Tata volunteers with the campus research group FishStalkers
Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Breanna Shi founded the FishStalkers research and mentorship program
News Image Captions

An Adobe Stock image of a variety of brightly colored Lake Malawi cichlids sharing a freshwater aquarium.

Georgia Tech OMSCS student Jasmine Tata volunteers with the campus research group FishStalkers

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Ben Snedeker, Communications ManagerGeorgia Tech College of Computingalbert.snedeker@cc.gatech.edu