SoReMo Looks to Make Impact Beyond Campus



By Casey Moffitt

Empowering students to conduct research making positive social change that they are passionate about was the main goal of the new Socially Responsible Modeling, Computation, and Design (SoReMo) initiative, which recently wrapped its inaugural semester at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Four student fellows were selected to answer a simple question: “What do you want to do?” Through their individual research projects, the fellows were able to pursue their passions through academic inquiry and to discover creative solutions to help their communities.

“I wasn’t surprised by their work, but I was surprised by their passion,” says Sonja Petrovic, associate professor of applied mathematics and SoReMo founder. “We set clear expectations for them, but their passion inspired us, the faculty.”

The fellows came from diverse academic backgrounds and conducted research in a wide variety of fields.

Ryan Ciminski (MATH 1st Year) worked with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for his project, “Community Risk Mitigation Research: A Data Science Study into the Inequities of Preparedness Education in the Chicago Region.” Barien Gad (BCHM 2nd Year) contacted a number of universities to see how they distribute feminine hygiene products for students in her project, “Facilities, Amenities, and Accommodations for Minorities in STEM and the Impact on Illinois Tech’s Community.” Alisha Khan (CS 2nd Year) gained public speaking skills while conducting her project, “Investigating and Developing Strategies to Address Student Diversity at Illinois Tech.” Leila Mirghaderi (Ph.D. THUM student) collected massive amounts of data to discover in her project, “Social Media Users Free Labor in Iran: Influencers, Ethical Conduct, and Labor Exploitation.”

The fellows got a full research experience conducting the work and receiving critical and constructive feedback from anonymous Illinois Tech faculty, and wrote technical reports on their work, which were published in the SoReMo Journal hosted by Illinois Tech’s Paul V. Galvin Library.

“It’s not an academic journal, and it’s not a student-run journal,” Petrovic says. “The process mimics exactly what happens in formal academic publishing. But the authors retain copyright of their technical reports and may choose to submit them or build on them for future projects or publications.”

Along with the student fellows, the SoReMo initiative included a forum featuring guest speakers lined up by Matthew Dixon, assistant professor of applied mathematics. Each speaker gave a talk under the theme of ethics in artificial intelligence.

“The forum wasn’t used as background for the research, but rather, as a way to expand our horizons on how to use data and algorithms,” Petrovic says. “What is ethics, really? We all have our own ideas. But the forum gave us different viewpoints and educated us on ways to think about it.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the forum was held virtually, which allowed for speakers from across the globe to give their perspective on ethics in AI. This allowed for a wider variety of voices as it was easier for international speakers to participate, as well as Illinois Tech students and faculty.

“Sometimes you can’t make it all the way across campus to get to a talk, but it’s easier to pop in virtually,” Petrovic says. “Although, there’s nothing like an in-person talk. It’s more relevant to the fellows, who can interact more with the guests.”

Petrovic says that she hopes that SoReMo can work with more community groups in Chicago to address real-world problems facing the city, expand to allow more students to participate, and create teams of students from a variety of academic backgrounds. The initiative already has attracted faculty from each Illinois Tech college, but the possibilities could grow if groups of students could work together.

“Imagine an interdisciplinary team of students from architecture, mathematics, and computer science working together to solve a problem for the city,” she says.

Photo: Sonja Petrovic, associate professor of applied mathematics and SoReMo founder