Skip to main content
Assistant Professor Justin Boutilier and undergraduate student Katherine Breen
January 23, 2023

New program helps industrial engineering undergrads explore research

Written By: Tom Ziemer

Over the course of three years spent working on the same research project, University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate Katherine Breen made a fundamental self-discovery that went beyond any data she’ll publish.

“I decided I really liked the research process,” she says.

Since her sophomore year, Breen has worked on a project in the lab of Justin Boutilier, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, studying tuberculosis recurrence in Kenya. The research is part of a collaboration with Keheala, a mobile platform that helps patients manage their conditions by delivering reminders to take medications and providing other support.

With mentorship from Boutilier, she’s been able to stretch her independence as a researcher, reviewing existing literature, using machine learning and other computer science techniques to format often-messy data, analyzing recurrence rates, and turning it all into a coherent written thesis.

It’s an experience that’s inspired her to pursue a PhD at the intersection of computer science and healthcare. And it’s an experience the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering hopes to replicate for other undergraduates who are serious about exploring pathways in research.

ISyE is launching a new honors in research option for undergraduates to formalize that experience, give students a tangible credential for their extra efforts, and teach them about the research process and graduate school opportunities.

“The creation of this was really driven by students, honestly—not anything that they necessarily knew that they were asking for, but we’ve had so many students who want to get involved in research as undergrads,” says Amanda Smith, an assistant teaching professor and the department’s associate chair for undergraduate affairs.

Participating students will take two courses covering the fundamentals of research—like conducting literature surveys, writing proposals and presenting research in different formats—and preparing for graduate programs. The department will pair students with relevant faculty mentors, in whose labs they’ll conduct research leading to a senior thesis and poster presentation during an annual research showcase event.

That structure was partly inspired by the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics, which offers a thesis experience as part of one of its undergraduate majors. In fact, despite working in an ISyE faculty member’s lab, Breen is actually an engineering physics major with a focus on scientific computing, in large part because she specifically wanted the challenge of completing a thesis project. When she was combing through research options, she came across Boutilier’s lab, which applies optimization and machine learning techniques to improve healthcare access and delivery.

“I would never have learned about this whole area that I’m now very interested in and want to have a career in,” says Breen, who’s also a member of the UW rowing team. “It’s also set me up very well for graduate school, because I know about the research process. I’ve done a whole project, so when I’m writing applications, I can talk about all the stuff I’ve done.”

Smith sees the new program as a way to both expose students to current trends in the field and add enthusiastic young researchers to faculty labs.

“It is a really great way for students to see what is actually being done in modern industrial engineering,” she says. “It’s helpful for the people who are running the project because it reduces their workload, and it’s helpful for the students to see what’s really going on and how challenging it is to solve real, open questions and not textbook problems that have nice clean answers.”

Top photo caption: Assistant Professor Justin Boutilier and undergraduate student Katherine Breen are working with Kenya-based Keheala to assist tuberculosis patients. Photo by Tom Ziemer.