Have you ever wanted to combine your studies with your interest in traveling overseas? Austin Kothig is a computer science student who had the wonderful opportunity to do just that, by completing a semester abroad in Italy during Fall 2018.

Computer science student Austin Kothig, left, was able to work on the iCub robot at the Italian Institute of Technology.

Kothig was awarded the Mitacs Globalink Research Award through collaboration between University of Lethbridge neuroscience professor, Dr. Matthew Tata, and Dr. Francesco Rea from the Department of Robotics, Brain and Cognitive Science at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa, Italy.

Kothig’s U of L story actually began five years ago when, as a member of Lethbridge’s high school International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team that won first place at the iGEM 2013 High School Jamboree, he was awarded a scholarship to the University. Having grown up in Lethbridge, he was happy to stay home for his post-secondary education. During the Spring 2017 semester, Kothig took Tata’s 3000 level interdisciplinary studies course, Introduction to Robotics. Inspired, he jumped at the opportunity to take an independent study in the Tata lab that involved working with the iCub robot, a complex humanoid robot. Through this project, Kothig met Rea and together with Tata and two other students, the group developed new algorithms for the iCub. The work required very specific procedures to create new behaviours and skills, and focused on various applications involving the implementation and improvement of cognitive models of the human attention system.

Through the Mitacs Globalink Research Award, Kothig was able to travel to Italy and continue working on developing biologically inspired software for the iCub as part of a four-month co-op work term. More specifically, he was working on a computational model for localizing human speech. The goal was to give the robot better context of what is happening in the auditory world. The project took inspiration from how human brains can effortlessly decode complex mixed signals. This context is then represented as the probability that there is a speaker at all angles around the robot.

“This project is significant because audio is a difficult computational challenge. The iCub platform is unique because between the two microphones on the head is a computer with a cooling fan. This ends up causing a lot of noise in the auditory world,” explains Kothig.

Kothig established numerous collaborative relationships while overseas.

“In a lot of the demos with the iCub, the person giving instructions to the robot (i.e. pick up the toy octopus) is speaking to a monoaural microphone in their hand. This is done to ensure that the speech recognition they are using has ‘clean’ input. A long-term goal would be to take what we have developed and use the probabilities of where human speech is coming from as the target locations for where the robot should be attenuating to, ignoring all other positions.”

It wasn’t all work for Kothig in Italy. Over the course of his semester, he made several new friends among the PhD students at IIT, especially enjoying the “lab dinners” they would enjoy at the many different restaurants and pizzerias in Genoa. His journey with robotics has inspired him to pursue a master’s program doing research on AI and robotics.

“Getting involved in research in your undergrad is an excellent experience. It can help foster skills and knowledge beyond lectures. Showing interest in academic research is a great way to build connections, not only internally but also externally,” says Kothig. “Don’t be afraid to look for opportunities outside of your department. A key strategy in software engineering is to make your team diverse and interdisciplinary; having vastly different academic perspectives on a project often results in better solutions.”

Kothig goes on to say, “Find out from your supervisors if they have had any previous collaborations, partnerships, or colleagues that are with institutes outside of Canada. Preexisting connections are a fantastic way to jumpstart your application.”

The Mitacs Globalink Research Award provides $6,000 for senior undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows in Canada to conduct 12 to 24-week research projects at universities overseas.

For more information about the Mitacs Globalink Research Award, click here.