Brendan Gould, a first-year computer science and mathematics major, is working to discover how to cause humans to drive more safely — mathematically.
As part of his Undergraduate Research Academy project with Phillip Brown, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Gould is investigating the effects of a hypothetical technology called vehicle-to-vehicle communication using the tools of game theory.
Together, Gould and Brown are exploring whether providing drivers with foreknowledge of road hazards will make them drive more carefully, or if drivers will simply come to associate a lack of a signal with a guarantee that the road ahead is safe, causing them to drive less carefully overall.
“I have always loved the way that math can be used to describe real world events, and that really is the heart of this project,” Gould said. “I think it is amazing how we can start from relatively simple statements and assumptions about the world and derive meaningful information about what will actually happen.”
Gould answered eight questions about his research, his partnership with Brown and his best advice for students interested in future research opportunities.
1. What was your path to UCCS and working with your faculty mentor?
I grew up in Colorado Springs with UCCS always being “the local school”. With COVID hitting towards the end of my senior year in high school, local turned out to be a great fit for me because I was able to stay in touch with my family and friends and not be totally isolated by remote learning. Dr. Brown is actually also my faculty advisor, which is how we met. During one of our early advising meetings, it came up that I am a Computer Science / Math double major, and he mentioned those skills are particularly suited to his research lab. In a later meeting, I asked if there were any research projects he thought I might be suited for, and he brought up the idea that eventually turned into our Undergraduate Research Academy project.
2. If you were describing your research/creative work to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
We are investigating the effects of a hypothetical technology called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication using the tools of game theory. The idea behind V2V is that it would allow cars with the technology to broadcast a signal when they pass a road hazard, such as an accident. This signal could then be received by other cars with the technology, letting them know they should drive more carefully because of the hazard. On the surface level, this seems like it should improve road safety because it gives drivers more information about the road ahead.
However, over time, V2V drivers could come to associate the lack of a signal with a guarantee that the road ahead is safe, which is not necessarily true (there could be a hazard that has not been reported yet). Because of this, V2V drivers could become complacent and drive more recklessly on average, making the roads less safe.
For our work, we have created a mathematical model representing this situation, and are attempting to derive which of these conflicting effects will win out. This will let us determine if V2V technology would actually improve road safety, and even suggest empirical criteria that it has to meet in order to do so.
3. Which concept or discovery from your research/creative work most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
I have always loved the way that math can be used to describe real world events, and that really is the heart of this project. I think it is amazing how we can start from relatively simple statements and assumptions about the world and derive meaningful information about what will actually happen. It is often surprising just how much meaning can be found in an equation if you know where to look.
4. Describe how and why this research/creative work was started.
During the spring semester of 2021, quarantine was really taking a toll on me, and I wanted another way to be involved in some sort of academic activity to keep my mind occupied. I eventually met with my faculty advisor, Dr. Phillip Brown, who also happens to run a research lab in algorithmic game theory. I mentioned my desire to get involved to him, and he told me about a question that had been on his mind for a while and could become a good research project. I was interested in the idea and sent him some initial work on it soon after.
Around the same time as this conversation, the Undergraduate Research Academy began accepting applications. We eventually decided to apply to this program using our project, and were accepted.
5. What has the experience of working with your faculty mentor and fellow researchers been like?
I have really enjoyed working with Dr. Brown on our research. Generally, we meet once a week to discuss where the project is currently and next steps that should be taken. Then, I work on these questions throughout the week until our next meeting.
This structure provides a nice mix of guidance from a mentor and independent exploratory work. Our weekly check-ins have been very helpful to ensure that I am never too lost or stuck on a problem. At the same time, they are general enough that I have never really felt like I’m doing rote or busy work. Additionally, the talking through the project with someone who also understands the details is extremely useful for sorting ideas out in my own head.
6. How has this work helped prepare you for your future in graduate school or your career?
Most classroom based math follows a very artificial structure. The teacher will show students how to do a problem, and the assign homework where the students can practice doing that type of problem. In this project, and in a career, it is often the opposite. We find a problem that we want to solve, and must figure out how to do that for ourselves.
I believe exploratory problem solving is a valuable skill that this project is an excellent opportunity to practice, and that I will use this skill throughout my life.
7. What has been the most memorable part of working on this project with your faculty mentor?
Really being able to dive into a problem and see firsthand all of the complexity hidden just below the surface has been the most memorable aspect of this project for me. “Peeking behind the curtain” to see how everyday events work on a mathematical level has always been interesting to me, but it is easy to get lost in all of that complexity. Having a mentor who can help guide me and work through problems has made it possible to explore much more deeply and made the experience that much more interesting.
8. What advice would you give first-year students who are interested in working with a faculty mentor?
Self-advocating is a very useful skill for finding opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Personally, it has also been something that I struggle with, so I know that it can be difficult. However, I never would have had the chance to work with Dr. Brown if I didn’t ask, and it turned out really well. When I first contacted him, I didn’t even have research specifically in mind, but it started a conversation that developed into working in his research lab. The more of those kinds of conversations you can start, the better chance you have of making something happen.
The Undergraduate Research Academy encourages UCCS students to expand their education beyond the classroom through participation in research and creative projects while engaging in mentorship with UCCS faculty. The yearlong collaborative research projects further students’ professional and academic development while furthering faculty members’ research program goals.
UCCS celebrates this year’s cohort of Undergraduate Research Academy student and faculty researchers. All those interested in participating should visit the Undergraduate Research Academy website for more information.