Photo illustration by Joy Smoker May 16, 2022
UD computer science major Lauren Baron is making her mark
If Lauren Baron is any representation of the up-and-coming generation of scientists and engineers, then our future is going to be filled with innovative solutions.
At just 21 years old, this University of Delaware undergraduate has already developed a program that combines art therapy, physical therapy and virtual reality — and hopefully a bit of fun — for stroke patients working through their upper limb mobility challenges.
“This was my first time working with virtual reality. It was all new to me,” said Baron, recalling her first year at UD’s College of Engineering. By the end of the summer, she conducted a preliminary study — another first for this honors student. It was also her first time working online, since the second half of Baron’s first year coincided with the lockdowns due to COVID-19 in 2020.
The New Jersey native is studying computer science in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, where research opportunities — even in a remote learning environment due to the pandemic — have helped her to embrace the creative side of her scientific pursuits.
“I’ve always been interested in computers,” said Baron. “It’s like a lot of problem solving. It didn’t feel like work to me. It’s fun to solve this problem or make that computer do something cool.”
Her project at UD has shown how turning physical therapy sessions into virtual reality games, where patients can virtually draw while also exercising their limbs, can help patients better engage in treatment. It also keeps them entertained, so they don’t get bored during their exercises or don’t feel pain as acutely.
“She wrote her first manuscript in her third semester at UD and she continued her project even when the program was concluded,” said Roghayeh (Leila) Barmaki, an assistant professor and Baron’s mentor. “She is a model for undergraduate students conducting research.”
In the three years she’s been pursuing her undergraduate degree and working in Barmaki’s award-winning Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Lab, Baron has already earned a status as a published researcher, including as the first author on a peer-reviewed study on her VR therapy game published in the Association for Computing Machinery Proceedings.
Her UD department has recognized her as the Outstanding Sophomore Student with the Paul D. Amer Meritorious Award in 2021, as well as Outstanding Senior Student in 2022. She’s earned honorable mention from the Computing Research Association as an outstanding undergraduate researcher, as well.
“She’s definitely one of the rockstars,” said Austin Cory Bart, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Sciences and Information.
Bart recalled when he first met Baron during her freshman year, and he can still remember her final project, a game she created called “Leaps and Bounds.” It wasn’t so different from Frogger, for those who remember the ‘80s arcade game in which a frog dodged traffic on a busy highway to get home. But the creative touches in the game’s appearance, and the fact that the program’s design was essentially coded from scratch by Baron, left an impression, Bart said.
“And she did it on her own,” he said. By her junior year, Baron was helping Bart as a teaching assistant. Not only was she helping in a challenging software engineering course, but she was also helping Bart learn how to teach the class with brand-new elements, showcasing Baron’s leadership skills on top of her technical prowess.
“It did not take her long at all to get up to speed,” Bart said. “It’s not just about knowing the material. It’s also about being there, convincing students they can ask you questions, showing a certain amount of authority and compassion at the same time.”
In addition to the strenuous studies of being a member of UD’s Honors College, Baron also is pursuing a minor in cyber security during her studies at the College of Engineering and has made the dean’s list every year. She said she’s specifically interested in keeping technology safer from hackers.
She said it was a friend during her freshman year who pointed her to research opportunities through the Delaware INBRE Summer Scholars Program, which ultimately led her to Barmaki and an introduction to biomedical-based approaches and virtual reality. Baron will continue fine-tuning the therapy-focused game as she prepares her senior thesis in the HCI lab.
Growing up in a close-knit Filipino family with a respiratory therapist for a mom, an anesthesiologist for an uncle and a physical therapist for an aunt, Baron said she thought she’d end up in the medical field, too.
But in high school, she had found an affinity for computer science, drawn by the creativity she found in digital problem solving. She also wanted to stay close to her family and UD seemed like the perfect fit, she said.
“I’m really happy with it. I love it,” she said. “There’s a big sense of community in the College of Engineering, and I’ve especially had a good experience in the computer science program. The teachers are really supportive of their students.”
She noted that the department specifically supports aspiring female scientists by providing scholarships and supporting their attendance at the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, one of the leading conferences in the field.
During the summer in 2021 and 2022, Baron has been a software engineering intern at JP Morgan Chase. The summer after her freshman year (2020), she interned at the HCI Lab as a summer scholar and through UD's Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships’ “Spin In” program as a backend web development intern working on a “Manure Market” project that aimed to create a website connecting Delmarva poultry producers and those selling litter from poultry operations with buyers and brokers, ultimately to address the excess nutrients, such as phosphorus, in the region. She has also participated in UD coding team competitions and regional Hackathons, and since her freshman year has participated in the University’s Filipino Student Association, the Women’s Chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, and CS+Social Good, an organization that connects community organizations with technical solutions from students, where she helps lead the effort’s public relations.
It’s not all about computers for this scientist from south Jersey, though. Baron is a former volleyball player who loves her technical work and studies but also enjoys traveling, spending time with friends, painting and baking.
This stellar student expects to graduate in fall 2022 – a semester early. After that, she plans to pursue a career in industry, possibly in the technology sector.
“She’s like a magnet,” Barmaki said, noting that she not only has a well-rounded extracurricular agenda, but that she was known to motivate others to join Barmaki’s group. “She’s trustworthy, hardworking and focused — and she also follows her dreams and passions. She knows what she’s looking for.”