Newswise — New Brunswick, N.J. (Feb. 21, 2019) – Pedro Gerum was working on his thesis, which focuses on ways to improve railroad track inspections in New Jersey, where he never imagined those same skills could give him a chance to help NASA discover new exoplanets.

Gerum recently landed an internship at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, where he will be working on the agency’s TESS  (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission. TESS is a telescope designed to scan an area of the sky that is 400 times larger than the one covered by the Kepler mission. He will analyze data received from the telescope to aid in the discovery of exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system.

“My job is to see light curves from the satellite and try to determine if those curves represent a planet or not via computer algorithms,” Gerum said.

Gerum, a fourth-year ISE (Industrial Systems Engineering) doctoral student at Rutgers–New Brunswick, was working under Associate Professor Melike Baykal-Gürsoy on a project that focuses on detecting rail track defects. By using data analyses and statistics, Gerum creates patterns that can more accurately pinpoint where a problem originates. He then trains a computer to detect those patterns.

“In the case of railways, I am looking for patterns, and those patterns will help detect the problem areas. In the case of NASA, I am looking for patterns, and those patterns will help determine whether a light curve indicates the presence of new planets,” Gerum said.

Baykal-Gürsoy said this process of creating patterns in search of a conclusion is called building a stochastic model, which directly translates to the expertise NASA needs.

“The first step in a stochastic model for the railway system is to figure out how to model a defect occurrence process based on the defects found during inspections, and then the second step is to figure out how to predict a behaviorial pattern from it,” Baykal Gürsoy said. “Then you train a computer to detect problems on its own by plugging in examples of these patterns until it learns to do it accurately, and then it does the work for you, even better than you. This is called machine-learning.”

Gerum will be doing that exact research with NASA, along with seven other students from across the globe who will be working in various projects at the agency. Gerum, originally from Brazil, completed his undergraduate degree at the Federal University of São Carlos and landed the position at NASA as a result of a partnership between the Brazilian Space Agency and NASA. Gerum said Baykal-Gürsoy directly helped him develop his expertise on data science and optimization and he is grateful for how much assistance the university has offered to help him reach his goals.

“I traveled to Rutgers to meet with Dr. Baykal-Gürsoy and I really liked her expertise in her field and she made me feel welcome,” Gerum said. “As an international student, I was lucky that Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development and Rutgers could fund my doctorate program, and they really helped me get to where I am.”

Gerum, who is the first ISE student to work at a NASA facility, hopes other Rutgers students will be inspired to use their skills in areas outside of their immediate field of study. He said the relationship between tracking railway defects and discovering planets is more closely related than it seems.

“There is usually a way to use your skillset in most fields,” said Gerum, who will return to Rutgers to complete his degree after his internship ends in May 2019. “You just have to stay open and get the right support.”

To schedule an interview with Pedro Gerum, contact Cynthia Medina.

View downloadable photos here:  (All photos of TESS Satellite are courtesy of NASA. All photos of Pedro Gerum are courtesy of Pedro Gerum.)




Broadcast interviews: Rutgers University–New Brunswick has broadcast-quality TV and radio studios available for remote live or taped interviews with Rutgers experts. For more information, contact Cynthia Medina [email protected]


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