A sense for sensors

Prolific researcher

Prolific researcher:  Harry Gao ’11 (red sweater) and advisor Qun Li, associate professor of computer science, look over a set of results on a sensor project. Gao has been working with sensors since his sophomore year at William & Mary, building research capability that Li says is equivalent to a third-year Ph.D. student.

Harry Gao ’11 is finishing up an impressive undergraduate research career

They’re everywhere. Tiny sensors designed to track information. The technology has been around for some time, and computer scientists—including undergraduate Harry Gao ’11—are working on new opportunities to perfect and utilize these devices.

Harry is a double major in computer science and mathematics. He began his research career in his sophomore year, working on a more reliable and secure protocol for gathering information from roadside sensors. His results were published in the International Conference on Wireless Algorithms, Systems, and Applications and the Journal of Communications. And Harry was well on his way to an impressive undergraduate research career.

“Harry is a talented and enthusiastic young researcher for whom I have the highest regard,” says mathematics Professor Michael Lewis. “He is the first undergraduate I’ve ever met who arrived with his own research agenda.”

Improving human-motion sensors

A summer 2009 National Science Foundation Computational Science Training for Undergraduates in the Mathematical Sciences Grant allowed Harry to pursue a project aimed at improving the function of sensors that detect human motion.

These sensors are often used in senior care to alert care providers if a person moves or falls. To reduce battery drain, the sensors are equipped with a sleep mode that kicks in when the sensor remains inactive for a period of time.Harry Gao displays a wireless sensor, usually known as a mote.

“The problem is, the sensor can’t detect motion when the sleep mode is on,” says Harry. He worked with fellow student Andrew Wilcox to try to reduce battery drain and thereby eliminate the need for a sleep mode. “We redesigned the data sent by the sensor to use less information. By compressing the data into one small byte, less of the battery is used.”

‘Proof of location’

Harry’s current research examines the secure use of inexpensive RFID technology (the same radio wave communication system used for collecting tolls with a smart tag EZ Pass) to provide “proof of location” for people, an application that would be useful for areas like criminal investigation when confirming an alibi.

“We have the ability to verify a person’s location now, but the technology is very expensive,” says Harry. “Many cell phones are already RFID-compatible, and using this technology could offer many more less expensive uses. We believe sensor networks will be the next big thing, but they must be secure.”

Harry’s research record to date won the attention of the Computing Research Association (CRA), which named him a finalist for this year’s Outstanding Undergraduate Award. The CRA is the primary policy organization for computer research and education in North America.

“Harry’s selection as a finalist places him among a small number of outstanding candidates,” says W&M Computer Science Department Chair Professor Virginia Torczon. “The department is exceedingly proud to see Harry in this short and highly selective list of outstanding young researchers in computer science.”

Born in Jinan, China, Harry moved to Houston, Texas, with his parents when he was 13 years old. Later his family relocated to Falls Church, Virginia, where he learned about William and Mary’s strong computer science program. Now Harry is in the process of applying to graduate research programs in computer science at some of the nation’s top schools. In January, Harry was notified that he would receive the annual Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy, a honor awarded every Charter Day which recognizes excellence in the sciences in an undergraduate student.

According to Harry’s advisor, computer science Professor Qun Li, “Harry's research capability, in my opinion, is equivalent to that of a third-year Ph.D. student. I have no doubt he will do very well in his future career.”i