Awards enable grad students to tackle big ideas, solve real problems

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The College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) launched its Graduate Entrepreneurship Awards this past year to bridge academic research and industry and provide students with hands-on experience assessing and developing market potential for their early-stage technologies.

"The goal is to promote student innovation and entrepreneurship across all graduate programs in CAS," said Associate Dean Yogesh Vohra, Ph.D., University Scholar and professor of physics. "There is greater emphasis in selection of projects on what happens after a student finishes their thesis project. Will it develop into a commercially viable product?"

The awards support a growing emphasis on academic and industry collaboration to provide solutions to national and global problems and create more knowledge-based jobs in the Birmingham region through UAB startups and spin-off companies.

This second round of awards reflect the diversity of research within the college — from online security measures to improved mining drills — and demonstrate these students are tackling big ideas and finding ways to implement them in a real-world environment.

Building a better mousetrap

Song Gao,captcha sized a graduate student in Computer and Information Sciences, received an entrepreneurship award for his proposal to enhance Internet security.

Nearly everyone trying to access a protected part of a website has had to identify warped numbers and letters using a Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA). But even those are not foolproof.

Why should they be? Cybercriminals, for example, can use CAPTCHA-busting botnets or CAPTCHA-solving human networks to acquire bogus email accounts for spamming, phishing or registering near unlimited fraudulent or malicious domains. It is one tool of an international criminal enterprise that the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently estimated bilks more than $500 billion annually from the global economy.

Gao hopes to make the tests harder to hack by incorporating an interactive element — short games such as parking a car or matching shapes — that would make them harder to hack. And, Gao said, everyday users will probably like these CAPTCHAs better.

"The only operationGao Saxena Zhang sizedChengcui Zhang, Ph.D., graduate student Song Gao and Nitesh Saxena, Ph.D. required from the user is drag-and-drop," Gao said. "It is easier than typing, so we can apply this category of CAPTCHAs to mobile devices and the iPad. You use one finger to complete the game instead of typing."

As a condition of the award, recipients must collaborate with a potential commercial partner and mentors who can guide and test the student's research and product.

Gao’s mentors are associate professors Nitesh Saxena, Ph.D., and Chengcui Zhang, Ph.D., who also are working on novel security challenges, and his industry partner is Are you a Human, a start-up company based in Michigan. Saxena, who directs UAB’s Security and Privacy in Emerging computing and networking Systems (SPIES) research group, said the company already has interactive CAPTCHAs, but they aren't yet fully secure. Gao, Saxena and Zhang are looking into these CAPTCHAs to reveal the weaknesses that hackers may exploit.

"We actually built a computer program that could play the games automatically, which is what you want to prevent," Saxena said. "So, we are working on making this more secure. That is what we are discussing with [the company], and how we can improve the security and the usability."

Drilling with diamonds

Physics graduate student Jamin Johnston is developing a specific kind of diamond coating he hopes will lengthen the lifespan of mining drills.

"The drill bits now used wear out in a matter of seconds in a mining application," Johnston said.

jamin johnston sizedGraduate student Jamin Johnston.Diamonds’ durability and strength under pressure make them ideal for industrial uses, such as drill bits. And the entrepreneurship award is enabling Johnston to pursue this research mentored by Assistant Professor Aaron Catledge, Ph.D., who, along with Vohra, patented a revolutionary process in 2001 for creating nanostructured diamond films that can be deposited on metals.

"My [diamond-coating] process increases the lifespan of these drills by about 10, Johnston said. “I've been able to move this past, 'Hey look I can put diamond on this metal.' Now it actually applies to drill bits and the manufacturing of these tools."

Hueytown-based Bama Mine and Mill, Johnston's commercial partner, will help test his research. 

"They provide us the raw materials, and I perform the scientific tests and processes that give it that diamond layer," Johnston said. "Then they help us with the testing. It's very difficult to test what it's like to use a drill bit in a mine, unless you actually have a mine in which to test it."

The company provides the test results to Johnston, which he said have been helpful beyond theoretical approaches and lab tests.

"It's given me a very hands-on feel for exactly what's going to happen to this material when it's being used, and that's invaluable," Johnston said. 

Apply by March 1

For students approaching graduation, the chance to partner and network with companies who could benefit from their research beyond the testing phase helps create career opportunities. 

"I think these companies are very willing to work with the students because they're really looking at them as possible future employees," Vohra said. "It’s a benefit for them as well."

Assistance, guidance and services provided by the UAB Research Foundation, the Birmingham Business Alliance and the Innovation Depot also will help students realize the commercial potential of their products and processes.

Students in all graduate programs in CAS are eligible to compete for the next round of entrepreneurship awards; the next application deadline is March 1. Information on eligibility, requirements and proposal submissions is online.