By Jennifer Brouner
Every semester, Dr. James Plank, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Tennessee, chooses only the top undergraduates from his classes to enter into his research family. Under his supervision, they are given opportunities to participate in up-to-date computer science research. In 2007, Katie Schuman was adopted into Dr. Plank’s lab family, and she has continued to impress him with her computer programming skills and creative insight ever since.
For a total of three summers from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each day, Schuman has worked tirelessly writing new computer code and testing its efficiency. Every hour spent in front of her computer brought her closer to an improvement in the technique of erasure coding, a highly sophisticated method of data storage.
Each of Schuman’s three summers involved a different project, and each required hard work and dedication. During her first summer, Dr. Plank wasted no time in assigning Schuman her very own project. Dr. Plank wanted to know how his erasure-coding library compared to others around the world. Schuman was appointed to read and adapt the code for each of the online-accessible erasure-coding libraries. She wrote code that would command each of the libraries to perform the exact same task, and she measured the time it took for each of them to complete the task. After three months of effort, Dr. Plank and Schuman were able to evaluate the efficiencies of the libraries.
The results of Dr. Plank and Schuman’s efforts in the summer of 2008 were published in the proceedings of File and Storage Technologies (FAST), one of the most prestigious computer science conferences. Schuman was cited as a third author in this publication. According to Dr. Plank, “If you are a storage researcher, this is where you want to publish.” In February of 2009, Dr. Plank and Schuman’s work was one of 25 papers to be presented at a conference in San Francisco. “Every year, this is the number one venue to present storage research,” he says. Schuman, as a twenty-year-old, was already able to contribute meaningfully to the storage community with her research.
During Schuman’s second summer in 2009, Dr. Plank presented his undergraduates with a different type of challenge. He asked them to each write their very own Facebook application. This project was geared toward generating a large amount of data that Dr. Plank and his research team could protect using erasure coding.
Schuman created an application that would generate photo collages, and it quickly became a hit for Facebook users across the globe. Dr. Plank and Schuman watched the application spread from Knoxville throughout Tennessee, then across the country, and then finally throughout Europe and Israel. Within the first two weeks of launching the application, Schuman was astonished that more than 33,000 people had begun to use her program. “It wasn’t even that good,” says Schuman. “It was just this thing that we were trying to do to generate traffic … and it did. It generated a lot.”
Though Schuman’s work during the summer of 2008 set her apart from her peers, her second summer expanded the gap and proved her to be a creative and innovative computer programmer. Schuman’s third and final summer was spent completing an undergraduate thesis. She published the results of this research project, titled “An Exploration of Optimization Algorithms and Heuristics for the Creation of Encoding and Decoding Schedules in Erasure Coding,” in the 2011 edition of Pursuit: The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee.
Dr. Plank chooses his undergraduates very carefully so that he is able to find students like Schuman. “The best undergraduates here are smarter than the graduate students,” says Dr. Plank. “I defy you to find a better student than Katie.”
After working with Schuman for three summers and knowing her for three years, Dr. Plank has become 100 percent invested in her future. From nurturing her computer programming talents, to writing her recommendation letters, to even advising her on graduate schools—Dr. Plank has supported Schuman in every aspect of her college career.
Schuman comments on the relationship with Dr. Plank saying, “I got to know him on a more personal level rather than just a professor-student relationship. I would say we are friends,” says Schuman. Dr. Plank views each of his undergraduate researchers as one of his children. “My undergraduates become a part of me,” he says. “I just want Katie to succeed, even if it’s not with me.”
After researching with Dr. Plank for three years, Schuman had accumulated enough research experience to write her own ticket to graduate school. Schuman applied to three schools in 2010: UT, Georgia Tech, and Vanderbilt. Dr. Plank was not surprised when he found out that she had been accepted to all three schools.
When advising her on choosing a graduate program, Dr. Plank says, “I was able to provide my perspective objectively, and I was good at figuring out what she wanted.” According to Dr. Plank, Schuman could have gone anywhere and done anything, but what she really wanted was to conduct research and stay close to her family. Schuman is currently seeking a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee under the supervision of Professor J. Douglas Birdwell, a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Dr. Plank and Schuman remain close friends.