UMaine alum embraces the challenge of being first
Rick Corey has been something of a groundbreaker at the University of Maine. As an undergraduate in the early 1990s, he was part of the first group to participate in Semester by the Sea, UMaine’s popular marine sciences program at the Darling Marine Center. He was among the first students to work at ASAP Media Services, a UMaine new media and Internet technologies lab.
Years later, after a career in marketing and advertising, he returned to UMaine as a member of the first class in the Master of Fine Arts Intermedia Program. Around the time he started in the MFA program, Corey was the first employee in UMaine’s Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction (VEMI) Lab, founded in 2008 by assistant professor Nicholas Giudice of the School of Computing and Information Science.
Now, Corey is helping UMaine undergraduates attain firsts of their own as they learn new computer programs and concepts in the VEMI Lab, where Giudice researches spatial informatics and cognitive neuroscience that could one day lead to applications for navigating environments using technology accessible to people with and without sight.
Among Corey’s responsibilities as the leader of the lab’s R&D team is to provide guidance for a group of undergraduate workers and researchers who help complete projects for companies that hire the lab. Those projects include modeling events, simulating environments and presenting complex data sets.
In addition to working on contracted projects, the undergraduates also develop technologies for graduate students doing research with Giudice. Corey, the VEMI lab manager, and Bill Whalen, the lab’s research coordinator, meet weekly with the undergraduates in a session that can at times feel like it’s taking place in a clubhouse rather than a high-level research facility. A conversation on the status of a project might turn into a debate about which UMaine dining facility serves the best french fries.
That kind of atmosphere is by design, Corey says. Recalling his own undergraduate days working at ASAP, he was given a lot of opportunities from new media faculty member Mike Scott, the director of ASAP R&D, who constantly challenged the student employees. Facilitating those opportunities and challenges is a similar approach Corey brings to the VEMI students.
“I want this place to not only be fun, but also a challenge, and I want people that want to learn and want to do new things,” Corey says. “I think there is legitimate excitement to be here because it is a challenge. Everything is new and different, and can lead to more projects. It can be very serious stuff, and there are times I have literally had to tell people to go home, get some rest, come back the next day, which is why we try to have some fun, too. It’s a certain rhythm.”
Corey can seem stern as he quizzes group members about their progress toward R&D deadlines, but he also will immediately offer assistance to find a creative way to fix a bug in the computer program or praise the undergraduates for mastering a tricky design challenge.
In return, the undergraduates’ eagerness shines through. During one recent meeting, as Corey explained a project coming their way, the students sat on the edges of their seats.
“What we’re doing now is basically having them push the technology to learn more,” Corey says. “I know of projects, such as grants or contracts, that if we get them, we need to do X, Y and Z to get an understanding of these things. We’re always trying to do a lot of forward thinking.”