Astronaut scholarship honors undergrad’s adventures in research

Oct. 23, 2013

Even in the UW-Madison College of Engineering, where undergraduates are encouraged to seek hands-on experience, it’s rare that a faculty member finds himself taken aback by a freshman’s eagerness to get involved in research.

That’s how Karu Sankaralingam, an associate professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering, remembers his first conversation with undergraduate Matthew Doran.

Sankaralingam first taught Doran in a freshman-level computer-engineering course. “During his first week of class, Matt came up to me and said, ‘I want to do some research with you,’” Sankaralingam says.

Photo: Matthew Doran

Matthew Doran

The professor initially told Doran to be patient, but let him take a crack at two crucial tasks: contributing to Sankaralingam’s research on microprocessors, and substantially reworking his course materials to include instructions for a series of robot-building projects.

“I wanted to develop instructional materials, but as it turned out, neither I nor my graduate students had the skills to do it at the level I wanted,” Sankaralingam says.

Doran and fellow student Zach York, however, were able to create instructional videos, project plans, and even samples of code to get Sankaralingam’s students going on building and programming simple robots.

Doran gave Sankaralingam an even greater surprise that summer. He helped to create a Web-based interface to visualize the results, from Sankaralingam’s Vertical Research Group, of an inquiry into how power constraints could limit the development of microprocessors in the future. Sankaralingam says this is a task that would likely take a first-year graduate student several months. It took Doran only a month to not only wrap his head around the concepts of the research, but also to organize a mess of code, rewrite the code, and create a Web page to display the results.

Doran, now a junior, has become something of a consultant for the professor. In summer 2013, for example, Doran and three other students began helping Sankaralingam revamp the course in an even more complex way. Sankaralingam wanted to use a different programming language in the course, which meant changing a whole lot more about the course.

“We wanted the class to have a more real-world application,” Doran says. “We had to change the homework students did to suit this new programming language.”

“Matt has realized, at a very young age, that both perseverance and talent are required to be successful. I think he is going to be very successful in whatever endeavor he chooses after college.”

Karu Sankaralingam

In addition to improving the course, Doran and other students authored a paper, “Hands-on introduction to computer science at the freshman level,” which they will present in March 2014 at the premier computer science education conference, SIGCSE.

That’s not the only big news Doran has received recently. This week, he will receive a $10,000 scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

Established by the astronauts from the NASA Mercury program, the scholarships are awarded to excellent students in engineering, science and mathematics. (Despite its name, the scholarship is not specifically for students intending to pursue careers in space exploration.)

Retired astronaut and UW-Madison engineering mechanics alumnus Brewster H. Shaw (BSEMA ’68, MSEMA ‘69) will present Doran a scholarship check during a ceremony at the Mechanical Engineering building on Thursday, Oct. 24. Shaw, in 27 years with the Air Force and NASA, served as a fighter pilot and flew three Space Shuttle missions in the 1980s.

Doran, a native of Gilbert, Minn., also stays busy outside of his electrical and computer engineering coursework. He has served on the UW-Madison Clean Snowmobile Team and plays trumpet in the UW Marching Band. In spring 2014, he will study abroad at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has also been interviewing for internships, and hopes to begin working as an engineer after he graduates.

“In the long-term, I’d like to have my own engineering firm,” Doran says. “I could see myself running a company.”

Though he’s taken an interest in such areas as robotics and signal processing, Doran says he’s keeping an open mind about what he might focus on in future work or research.

“Matt has realized, at a very young age, that both perseverance and talent are required to be successful,” Sankaralingam says. “I think he is going to be very successful in whatever endeavor he chooses after college.”

—Scott Gordon