By Abe Danaher | April 16, 2020
If you asked Nathan Bohmer in November 2019 what his plans for the future were, he had an answer for you – in 10 years, he wanted to be a leader in cyber security. Through hard work and keeping his head low, he knew exactly how he was going to slowly climb the ladder, growing as a professional and moving up within whatever corporation he was working for.
But that plan all changed in December after Bohmer completed his ITEC 444 human computer interaction (HCI) course taught by Dezhi Wu, an expert in HCI. Impressed by his passion for the class’ material, Wu offered Bohmer a learning opportunity in her lab using cutting-edge eye tracking technology. This research training began immersing Bohmer in biometric HCI research techniques and led directly to his acceptance last month of the internationally renowned Mitacs Globalink Research Award.
In a matter of six months, Bohmer went from no internship to having the opportunity to work on groundbreaking research at HEC Montréal university’s Tech3Lab, one of the leading user experience research labs in North America. Now, Bohmer doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life – and he couldn’t be happier.
“Information technology has taught me the real-world practicality of what I am learning. So, all the technology I am learning, all the different industries in my department, it’s real-world practice."
-Nathan Bohmer, Integrated Information Technology
“I thought that it would just be small jobs, work my way up – not have something this dramatically life-changing presented in front of me at this stage in my life,” says Bohmer as he looks back at these last six months. “I was expecting to work for it, work hard for it, and I guess I did still work hard for it. I just didn’t expect to have an opportunity this great present itself this quick.”
The Mitacs Globalink Research Award is offered to doctoral, graduate and undergraduate students across the globe, giving them the opportunity to study for 12 to 24 weeks at a university in Canada under the joint supervision of a home and host professor. With Bohmer's reception of the award, he will receive a $6,000 grant for his 12-week research experience. Twenty-five percent of his research will occur with Wu as his home professor at the University of South Carolina and the other 75 percent under Pierre-Majorique Léger at HEC Montréal in Canada.
“This global award, to a student like Nathan, is a historic, life-changing event,” says Wu, an associate professor of integrated information technology at the UofSC College of Engineering and Computing. “So, I think it’s a huge deal. It’s a top-notch global experience, it’s a very prestigious award and eventually, we are hoping for him to be able to go. It’s not easy to get this level of experience.”
Bohmer’s research will focus on creating feasibility analysis studies using eye tracking technology. With the rest of the research team, he will use spatial and temporal parameters to predict users’ behaviors and attitudes based off where they look, what they focus on, and the general movements of their eyes. By doing this, the team hopes they can capture users’ subconscious thoughts based on how, where and when their eyes move.
“Basically, with his research, we are hoping to jump beyond the traditional human-computer interaction research by integrating biometrics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence techniques,” Wu says. “And using this cutting-edge eye tracking technology and the machine learning modules, we can provide first-hand experiences to help the field move forward with a more in-depth understanding of human beings’ visual perception.”
Eye-tracking technology is not new. But what makes Bohmer’s research so groundbreaking is that the scanpath technology he and the team will employ provides more information than traditional technology and methods. Their technology increases the scope of the spatial and temporal information that is gathered, and then combines this information with machine learning and multi-disciplinary methods to gain valuable insights on user behavior from the mounds of data they gather.
“This is revolutionizing the industry,” Bohmer says. “And being able to be a part of this groundbreaking research really excites me.”
Bohmer may have to wait until Fall 2020 or Spring 2021 to conduct the research, though, due to the growing coronavirus pandemic. With the opportunity requiring extensive international travel to Canada, he is considering delaying the start of the award to avoid any travel-related issues. In the time-being, he plans to do a summer internship with the Division of Information Technology at UofSC.
Despite the coronavirus delaying the Mitacs Globalink award, Bohmer cannot stop thinking about the opportunity that lies ahead. As he begins teaching himself how to speak French to prepare for his “once in a lifetime” experience, he remains thankful for the professors and program that got him here.
“Information technology has taught me the real-world practicality of what I am learning,” Bohmer says. “So, all the technology I am learning, all the different industries in my department, it’s real-world practice. Everything we are learning, everything we are doing in labs, it’s all based upon what’s happening out there right now.”
He continues, “It wasn’t all me. There was a lot of dedication from both sides, UofSC and HEC, that really helped push to get this award. I couldn’t have done this without them. Because of their hard work and because they helped me and got me through this, it’s how we are where we are today – being able to say that I got to receive this award and that it is going to help represent not only myself, but Dr. Wu, the IIT program and UofSC as a whole.”