Grad students receive funding for high-tech research projects

Precarn Inc. Tuesday said it has awarded $405,000 to 54 graduate students across the country to support their research in the areas of robotics and intelligent system technologies.

The 54 recipients, who are attending 16 Canadian universities coast to coast, each gain a total of $7,500 towards their research, which ranges from making the artificial intelligence in video games smarter to improving the resolution of MRI medical images.

“There’s always got to be somebody who is taking these ideas and turning them into a new product or a new service or a new way to do things. In the Precarn model, we’ve always been very, very keen on supporting graduate students,” said Paul Johnston, president and CEO of Precarn.

Precarn is a not-for-profit company based in Ottawa that supports the pre-commercial development of new technologies. The $7,500 is designed to supplement a student or researcher’s main scholarship fund.

“We’re trying to provide that little bit extra funding that says, ‘Yes, it is worth it to stay in Canada. Yes, it is worth it to stay in this lab.’ It’s incentive to work with industry, to be more applied in your lab,” said Johnston.

Recipients are chosen based on their enthusiasm for a topic – typically one that has a real-world application with measurable benefits.

“We’re looking for bright, energetic, applied kids – young people who have a concept of how they want to apply technology to new domains,” said Johnston.

One such recipient is Hilmi Gunes Kayacik, a third-year PhD student in Dalhousie University‘s computer science department in Halifax. Kayacik is trying to improve the way security software works by better anticipating the mind of the hacker.

Most security software is based on responses to previous attacks, said Kayacik, but isn’t always capable of recognizing new threats. Hackers are constantly one step ahead of the game, particularly when it comes to mimicry attacks: those that are disguised to look like legitimate entry into a network system.

“In a sense, the attack looks like a bad guy (but) it mimics a good guy’s behaviour and still does the damage,” said Kayacik.

Kayacik is using evolutionary computation models to try to predict future threats and respond to them before they’ve even happened, almost in the same way as doctors attempt to predict flu strains and immunize people against them.

Another researcher, Rimon Mikhaiel, a third year PhD in the University of Alberta‘s computer science department, is also looking at viruses, but those that actually threaten the human body.

His work centres around software that’s used in the analysis of RNA (Ribonucleic acid), which is a chemical found in the nucleus and cytoplasm of cells and plays an important role in protein synthesis and other chemical activities. By comparing RNA molecules to their secondary structure elements, Mikhaiel can help predict the structure of newly discovered molecules. The work is applicable to the structure of human viruses and could be instructive for medical practitioners searching for answers.

“It could be used by biologists to predict the functionality of newly discovered viruses. By (comparing) old viruses to new ones, we can anticipate what would be a good cure,” said Mikhaiel.

Once Mikhaiel, Kayacik and the other $7,500 recipients have completed their work at the end of the academic year, they will be invited to a conference hosted by Precarn in June to present their findings. They can either deliver a written report to Precarn or present their information on a poster.

“That’s of as much benefit to them as it is to us,” said Johnston, “because it means that their work is exposed to other students, other professors from across the country (and) industry people, all of whom can criticize it in the best sense of the word.”

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