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ORNL Graduate Student Research Profile: Meg Drouhard

Doctoral student uses internship to improve big data visualization and advance career

Meg Drouhard

In the ASTRO program at ORNL, research participant Meg Drouhard used her computer science skills to advance immersive visualization tools for big data sets using the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Head Mounted Display (pictured above).

Motion sickness is no longer a condition relegated to seafarers or adrenaline seekers alone. With the emergence of big data visualization, scientists and researchers around the world find themselves in similar distress. During a 12-week appointment in the Advanced Short Term Research Opportunities (ASTRO) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), doctoral student Margaret (Meg) Drouhard explored ways to reduce “cybersickness” to improve user experience and operability of immersive visualization systems.

The ASTRO program, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy, offers recent or current masters and doctoral students opportunities to conduct groundbreaking research at one of the nation’s most prominent laboratories. Participants partner with mentors and are tasked with a real-world project intended to challenge their intellectual and technical skills and contribute to ORNL’s mission in the basic and applied sciences, energy and environment.

Under the direction of Dr. Chad Steed, a visual analytics scientist in the Computational Sciences and Engineering Division, and in collaboration with Drs. Thomas Proffen and Steven Hahn of the Neutron Data Analysis and Visualization Division at the internationally renowned Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), Drouhard helped advance prototypes of immersive visualization systems for neutron scattering data using the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Head Mounted Display (HMD). The HMD is worn like ski goggles and provides the user a virtual reality experience.

“The focus of my research was the exploration of intuitive interactions, efficient navigation of complex data sets and tools for collaboration,” said Drouhard, a doctoral student at the University of Washington (UW) in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering, which works with multiple consortia and programs focused on using data science and technology for social good.

“In order to avoid health hazards and facilitate rapid data exploration, our research is intended to design and implement interactions for immersive visualization that are intuitive and utilize natural movements. The tools should aid analysis of big data in near real-time without requiring specialized training to use them effectively.”

Drouhard and her colleagues at the lab were particularly interested in evaluating the performance of the HMD for large, complex data sets, such as those produced by the neutron scattering instruments at SNS. The process of immersive visualization translates massive point cloud data to 3D imagery, allowing scientists to “explore” the structure of their data more intimately.  

Drouhard’s days were spent brainstorming ideas, programming the visualizations and interactions and reading virtual reality literature for best practices and techniques. During her appointment she also co-authored two publications and forged collaborative relationships with researchers, many with whom she still maintains contact. Additionally, the open and supportive environment of the lab allowed Drouhard to explore research aspects she found most compelling while cultivating skills she can carry with her throughout her doctoral research and beyond. Already, she has received research assistantship funding at UW to develop a program to visualize large streaming text data sets. On the horizon, Drouhard envisions something even greater.

“Eventually, I plan to leverage technology to tackle anti-exploitation issues on a broader scale. I have a background in advocacy and joining the Human Centered Design and Engineering department at UW is an extension of that mission.”

Drouhard recommends the ASTRO program to students still in flux about their direction for academic advancement or career.

“The short-term research experiences are a great opportunity to achieve meaningful results without having to a commit to a topic that may not be your passion. The program gives students exposure to new research problems and disciplines and allows them to explore and learn with a strong support system,” she said. “I have learned valuable, transferable skills. Overall, the program has been an extremely positive experience.”