Serendipity: How a Student from University of Southern Mississippi Found Research Opportunities at UIC

Terrance Thigpen at the UIC Electronic Visualization Laboratory. - Lance Long, EVL

Participants: Terrence Thigpen


Serendipity… sometimes a series of events unexpectedly leads to fortunate discoveries, as happened to Terrance Thigpen, an African-American undergraduate studying Information Technology at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) who just completed a summer internship at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL), where he worked with faculty, staff and students to build CAVE2™, an advanced, panel-based, hybrid virtual-reality and visualization environment.

Selected for a UIC summer intern program for minority students, Thigpen left Hattiesburg, Mississippi for Chicago, and the USM campus of 17,000 students for UIC’s 28,000. He lived in the UIC Thomas Beckham Hall student residences for the summer, and took part in several orientation programs. Overall, he describes his experience as “awesome” - he enjoyed his summer in Chicago and at UIC. “Chicago is incredible,” he said, “with a festival every weekend. The UIC campus is big compared to USM… with good, kind people… always smiling… and always providing positive feedback.”

Most of all, he valued EVL’s culture and research activities. “EVL is like a big family,” he quickly learned. “If you need help, EVL staff willingly gives it. If you need resources, EVL provides them. Students are not selfish, and are willing to tell you what they know. EVL organizes social events, making new students feel comfortable, and not stranded.” Overall, he was awed by his experience, gained utmost respect for staff and students, and very much appreciated and admired his mentor, computer science professor and EVL director Jason Leigh.

This summer, EVL focused on building CAVE2, a virtual-reality environment funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Thigpen was quickly put to work. He helped build the physical structure, he wrote a tutorial to teach new users how to build virtual-reality applications using EVL’s OmegaLib software library, and he was listed as a co-author on an abstract that students submitted to a conference. Thigpen was so very proud of all his achievements, and rightfully so. Within a month of being at EVL, he was bringing friends from his summer program over to EVL and giving tours!

It was serendipity that brought a young man from Mississippi to UIC. A high achiever with an outgoing personality, Thigpen’s involvement in several USM academic programs provided him with this opportunity to discover new education and career opportunities.

Thigpen, who starts his senior year this Fall, attends USM on a scholarship from the NSF Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. LSAMP funds USM as part of the Louis Stokes Mississippi Alliance for Minority Participation (LSMAMP) program, which consists of eight institutions of higher learning that supports qualified minority students seeking undergraduate degrees in math, science, engineering, and technology. LSMAMP scholars participate in the campus organization IMAGE (Increasing Minority Access to Graduate Education) that is under the leadership of André Heath on the USM campus, which encourages participation in campus programs and community outreach activities, and organizes professional workshops to help students prepare for graduate school and the workforce.

In Fall 2011, the LSMAMP-funded program hosted a research symposium in Jackson, Mississippi, where students gave oral presentations or posters of their work. There, Thigpen heard a presentation by recruiter Denise Yates of the UIC Office of Graduate Diversity Programs. Interested in what research opportunities UIC had to offer, he gave her his resume.

Soon after, Allen Bryson of the UIC Graduate College’s Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) contacted Thigpen and asked him to apply. The UIC SROP program introduces underrepresented sophomores and juniors to academic research experiences. Students work one-on-one with a faculty mentor and participate in campus-based enrichment activities. To find a mentor, Thigpen was directed to the UIC College of Engineering’s website, where a detailed matrix describes all the departments’ current research thrusts.

For his B.S., Thigpen is studying Information Technology with a concentration in networking, so EVL’s work in international high-speed networking caught his eye. He phoned EVL, spoke with EVL director Jason Leigh, emailed him his resume, applied to SROP, and was accepted in Spring 2012. This year, SROP accepted only 41 students out of 600 applicants, and only 2 were from USM.

Thigpen will definitely apply to graduate school at UIC. And, though he didn’t get involved in the networking he initially thought he’d be doing, he was very excited to learn many new things that he can use in his career. And, he very much wants to join the EVL family. EVL does have networking projects and opportunities that he could get involved with in the future - perhaps networking multiple CAVE2s together so people can collaborate and share virtual experiences over distance.

About the UIC Electronic Visualization Laboratory
The Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago is an interdisciplinary research laboratory specializing in the design and development of high-resolution visualization, virtual-reality and collaboration display systems utilizing shared cyberinfrastructure.

CAVE2 is a trademark of the University of Illinois’ Board of Trustees.


Date: August 16, 2012

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