Morganne Lerch started the new year with a bang. Along with junior Anika Zaman, she is a recipient of a Chevron Scholarship for 2016-2017. The $2,000 scholarships are merit-based. Recipients were nominated by faculty for contributions to their department.
Lerch, a Louisiana native, said she chose to attend Rice because she was looking for a top engineering school somewhat close to home. The thing about Rice that most impressed her was the sense of community. “It was really Owl Days that helped me decide on Rice. I could see it was a community-driven school, and walking around campus, it felt like home,” she explained.
While she was sure about Rice right away, she wasn’t as sure about majoring in electrical and computer engineering (ECE). “I didn’t figure out ECE was what I wanted to major in until sophomore year, which put me a bit behind,” she said.
Now a senior at Jones, Lerch knew she would major in an engineering field and had it narrowed down to a couple of different options, but her involvement in undergraduate research helped her hone in on a decision. “I ended up being really interested in the breadth ECE offers,” she said. “Once I realized that ECE wasn’t limited to circuits, that I could do anything ranging from neuroengineering to machine learning, that solidified my decision.”
Lerch first got involved in undergraduate research through the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program at Rice. The program, started at Georgia Tech and funded through the Helmsley Trust, unites undergraduate education and faculty research in a team-based context. Undergraduate students earn academic credit, while faculty and graduate students benefit from the design and discovery efforts of their teams. VIP is a multi-level, multi-semester opportunity designed to give undergraduate students real-world research experience.
Lerch joined a VIP team just as the program was starting at Rice. “I was looking for summer research at Rice my sophomore year and emailed professors doing projects I was interested in. I ended up joining Dr. Behnaam Aazhang’s team, ‘A Digital Cure for Epilepsy,’ for about eight months.”
Lerch worked on a real-time, low-power device to run machine-learning algorithms to analyze epilepsy patients’ intracranial data. Dr. Aazhang’s group hopes that by analyzing this data, neuroengineers will be able to detect and predict epileptic seizures.
“The job we took on was expanding the project, explaining what was done and documenting the process. It was a really cool experience. I gained more practical knowledge with C, which was useful. I started having contact with Texas Instruments (TI) because we were working with their hardware, and now after graduation I’ll be going to Dallas to work as a Design Engineer at TI,” she said. “In interviews they put an emphasis on team learning, so being able to say I had hands-on experience through VIP really helped.”
Lerch said the VIP program piqued her interest in specific research areas of ECE. “Ultimately, reading research papers and learning about parallel processing and machine learning algorithms led me to my interest in the machine learning field,” she noted.
Lerch could have continued with VIP for her Senior Design project, but she was interested in exploring a new area. “I wanted a wider range of experience,” she explained.
Lerch’s senior design team came together over the summer. “A group of us wanted to work together, but we quickly realized that half of us were interested in optics and the other half more interested in algorithms, and we weren’t sure how the two interests would meet. We emailed several professors, and Dr. Ashok Veeraraghavan had projects that could combine our interests.”
Lerch’s senior design project deals with a new imaging technique, Fourier Ptychographic Microscopy (FPM). “With this technique you take a series of low-resolution images of a sample, lit by an LED array at different incidence angles, and you use computational post-processing in the Fourier domain to reconstruct the low-resolution images into one single high-resolution image,” she explained. “Our group’s goal was is to take this process and make it cheaper and more readily available - more like an open-source technology, to move it forward.”
Lerch said that her group wants to help people get this high-resolution, high field-of-view image without buying expensive or bulky equipment. The group is taking work usually done with an expensive computer and CMOS camera, and transitioning it to a Raspberry Pi with a camera module, with post-processing done on a remote server. “We are trying to see how good we can get the work within the year, and how far we can push it the project within the year,” she said. “Initially, we weren’t sure how our interests would combine, but the FPM project was perfect and I think we are making really good progress.”
While at Rice, Lerch has been a Teaching Assistant for ELEC 301 and ELEC 220, which was revamped last spring. “It was a cool experience to be involved with. We had input in that we could give feedback on the new labs the students did, and we helped answer questions as they came up,” she said. She is also a member of SHElecs, a club for undergraduate women in ECE, and IEEE Senior Class Representative, helping plan events such as Beer Debates and HallowECEen.
She encourages students to get involved on campus early to find out what they truly want to do. “Now that the VIP program is established, I think that is a really good way to figure out if you are interested in electrical and computer engineering. It is a great way to get experience with team-driven research projects, and it’s only a one-credit hour commitment for freshmen.”
Lerch also recommends FabShops to students who are undecided in engineering. FabShops are fabrication workshops hosted by the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) to help students turn their ideas into physical realities. They are hands-on workshops to teach foundational techniques.
In addition to her involvement on campus, Lerch also interned with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) in Colorado. “I very much enjoyed my summer in the Silicon Design Lab at HPE. I was on a great team with a strong mentoring program. I feel like I learned just as much at my summer internship as in a semester at Rice. The fact that I liked what I did there so much inspired me to look for jobs in a similar field, and my experience there really helped me in interviews, especially with TI.”
Her final encouragement is to other undergraduate women considering ECE. “The women in ECE are motivated, passionate, and intelligent, and I’ve truly been inspired by them. To prospective females in STEM, I would say, don’t be intimidated by the gender-ratio in some majors,” she said. “And, join SHElecs!”