Posted: December 6, 2007
Laura Trutoiu has unusual plans for the spring of her senior year. While her classmates will be wrapping up course work and engaging in other senior-specific rituals on campus, she'll be off in Tübingen, Germany, conducting research in virtual reality at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. For Trutoiu, a computer science major from Romania, the offer of a six-month, all-expenses-paid stint as a visiting researcher was simply too good to refuse. She will be working on a series of projects in different labs, including a robotics project and a project using brain scan data to see how the brain processes information.
Trutoiu's connection with MPI started back at the University of Utah, where she spent the summers of 2005 and 2006 as an intern in the School of Computing. She worked closely with a Ph.D. candidate named Betty Mohler, and the two kept in touch afterwards. When Mohler went on to do postdoctoral work at MPI in 2007, she suggested to Trutoiu that she come to MPI to do research over the summer. "I knew they had wonderful labs there [at MPI]," Trutoiu said. "I said, 'I'd love to come, but I need funding. I don't know how I can afford it.' " Trutoiu's dreams came true thanks to a Global Studies Summer Fellowship from the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives. "It's a great program for people who know what they want to do and where they want to go to conduct their research," Trutoiu said.
The summer in Tübingen was a big success. Trutoiu so impressed her supervisors at the virtual reality lab at MPI that they invited her to return, at their expense, for six months starting in January 2008. "I was the youngest person there," she said. "Initially I was intimidated. Max Planck Institute is a research-oriented institution. They don't have undergraduates. I worked among Ph.D. and master's students." Mohler acted as her mentor and helped her with ideas, but Trutoiu planned her own research. "It was a very collaborative effort. There were seminars every day and also weekly presentations by graduate students of their research." Trutoiu made two presentations over the summer and got a lot of help and support from her colleagues.
Trutoiu's MPI work not only gained her the six-month fellowship. She has been invited to present a paper based on her research at the March 2008 conference of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers for Virtual Reality. Her project involves the illusion of self-motion perception--in other words, making a person feel like she's driving a car, or riding a rollercoaster, when she's sitting still. The conference draws an international group of participants and does not generally include papers by college students, according to Trutoiu's advisor, computer science professor Claude Fennema. "So this is truly a feather in her cap and it would be so, even if she were a professional researcher. I am proud that Laura has been able to publish her work there."
Having "a liberal arts education rather than a strictly technical background is actually a bonus," Trutoiu said. "I'm not a typical computer science major who is only able to program. Coming from Mount Holyoke, I can conduct research, explain it verbally, and present it in public." She added that her studies in experimental design and psychology have enhanced her comprehension of virtual reality concepts. "Virtual reality has to do with both psychology and computer science. Ideally you would have a good grasp of both. The research group we have here at Mount Holyoke with professors Claude Fennema and Deborah Strahman [visiting instructor 2006-2007] from the computer science department and professors Joe Cohen [Class of 1929 Dr. Virginia Apgar Professor of Psychology and dean of studies] and Kathy Binder [associate professor of psychology] from the psychology department gave me the right perspective."
Trutoiu is grateful for the College's support. "It sounds like a cliché when the College says, 'You will accomplish what you want to accomplish,' but it's true. I never thought I would be able to study abroad spring of my senior year." She plans to return to the U.S. for the conference but, sadly, will have to miss commencement and other graduation festivities.