Rice University electrical and computer engineering junior Anika Zaman started the new year with a bang. Along with senior Morganne Lerch, she is a recipient of a Chevron Scholarship for 2016-2017. The $2,000 merit-based scholarships are awarded for student contributions to the department. Recipients are nominated by faculty.
The Houston native has always been interested in technology, so it made perfect sense to her to major in engineering when she arrived at Rice.
“I am from Houston and grew up wanting to attend Rice, so when I got accepted it felt right,” she explained. “I feel like the opportunities here are limitless.”
In high school, Zaman had taken four years of computer science. During her senior year, she took an engineering design course and really enjoyed the applications. She also fostered an interest in medicine. When she got to Rice she ultimately chose ECE. “It was a good balance between hands-on engineering design and my computer science skills,” she said. “CS to me felt completely theoretical and abstract.”
Because of her love of hands-on design and her interest in medicine, Zaman jumped into undergraduate research, starting in Dr. Caleb Kemere’s lab as a freshman. When she heard about the Vertically Integrated Projects program at Rice, she began to look into additional faculty research that might interest her and ran into Dr. Ashu Sabharwal’s Digital Gym team.
“Dr. Sabharwal’s work in healthcare was the project that resonated the most, especially the mission of the research,” she said. “I’m passionate about promoting health awareness and incentivizing exercise. I had friends who worked in the lab and it was encouraging hearing the cool, innovative things they were doing. I wanted to get involved with that.”
The Digital Gym project aims to turn the gym into a massive health sensor. They are designing technology to mount to any space or piece of equipment that will track exercise behavior without any individual pieces of wearable technology.
“There are multiple components to this, not just workout equipment,” Zaman said. “If someone is working in one of the racquetball rooms we can apply computer vision to that. Overall the whole initiative is about collecting data on each activity, whether it is racquetball, running on a treadmill, or cycling, and seeing how that changes over time.”
Zaman builds the algorithms for the team. “Specifically, I work on building algorithms to process the data we collect, to make that data something we can visibly see and measure. An example is taking accelerometer data and changing it into RPM.”
The end-goal for this data collection is to allow users to quantify their actions and turn them into benchmarks. Ultimately, the team would like to approach the recreation center on campus to use it as a facility for testing. Zaman said she has really enjoyed the research and likes that it is a combination of software, hardware, and data science.
“It helps me apply what I’m learning in my classes, like signal processing,” Zaman noted.
Now a Peer Academic Advisor and the IEEE junior representative, Zaman’s advice to students who are undecided about a major is simple – talk to upper classmen and professors from the department, look at the opportunities that come with the major, and get a sense of the culture.
“I love the vibe in ECE,” she said. “There is a great sense of community and everyone knows and helps each other. The students and faculty are very friendly and approachable, and willing to help and advise.”
Zaman will be interning this summer at Microsoft in Seattle, one of a series of internships she’s done over the past four years. The summer before her sophomore year, she interned with Hewlett Packard writing technical white papers on different products. Last summer, she was programming with J.P. Morgan.
“I got the whole spectrum of experience,” she said. “The program management work I’ll do at Microsoft will be a combination of the business and computer science work I’ve done. I’m really passionate about technology, so I’m definitely looking forward to this opportunity.”
Zaman encourages students to start interning early and to use summers to build their skills and experience. “Make something productive out of your summer, companies like to see that,” she advised. “You can practice applying the technical concepts from class as well as build professional communication skills.”
She also encourages students to look at startups for opportunities for professional development. “Startups are a great place to get business and tech skills because, due to their smaller sizes, you can gain varied expertise on the job. It also helps for future interviews – you can talk about the impact you made.”
Speaking of futures, what does Zaman want to do with her own bright one? “Right now I’d like to work in the tech industry first, then apply to business school for my MBA. HP fostered my interest in business, and I really enjoyed the work I did there,” she said.