Emma Light

From Classroom to Conference

October 30, 2023

Two students took their research to the stage, presenting papers at industry conferences.

Maxwell Simpson
Maxwell Simpson presenting at the MIT URTC.

Two students recently took their research to paper and then to peers, presenting their work at conferences with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Undergraduate Research Technology Conference (URTC) and the American Accounting Association’s (AAA) annual meeting.

Maxwell Simpson could be found in Gottwald Science Center as a middle schooler. His dad is a chemistry professor and saw an opportunity to foster Simpson’s interest in computers with Richmond colleagues. By the time Simpson came to UR as a student, he had already worked on several software development projects and was beginning to explore robotics.

His most recent work uses models to improve path planning, devising improved ways for robots to explore terrain and remote geographies. “The goal is to use the work in search and rescue to optimize rescue teams’ routes in areas that aren’t accessible by trails or roads,” Simpson said. Most of his simulations were completed on mountainous terrain in Yosemite National Park and Mount Everest. “I use NASA terrain data in the algorithms we developed to conceptualize the path planning.”

Simpson is working with Jory Denny, a former associate professor of computer science who now works at Waymo, an autonomous driving technology company. With Denny’s encouragement, Simpson applied to the URTC conference with their research paper, which was accepted to present. “It was just me up there,” Simpson said. “It was an amazing experience. There were many interesting talks about robotics and how computer science studies are used to solve problems across industries.” 

Emma Light shared Simpson’s sentiment about her experience presenting at the AAA meeting in Denver over the summer. “The whole experience was such a blessing,” she said, “It helped me remember how much I love those types of academic environments and being surrounded by people who love learning.”

Light partnered with Joyce van der Laan Smith, professor of accounting, on a paper exploring the experiential learning opportunity available through Richmond's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. VITA is an IRS program that offers free tax preparation for families and individuals with an income of $60,000 or less. She presented during a faculty-student collaboration portion of the program. 

“I wanted to research something that would make an actual impact and help me learn information and skills applicable to my interests,” Light said. She found a supportive mentor in van der Laan Smith to help cultivate her curiosity. “She always balanced providing guidance and independence. It was very rewarding as she allowed me to feel like this was truly my work.”  

“Emma was the only undergraduate accounting student whose paper was accepted in the Faculty/Student Collaboration session,” van der Laan Smith said. “The faculty in attendance were very surprised to learn she was a rising senior. Most importantly, watching her confidence grow throughout the research process and through her presentation was very rewarding.”  

Light says she hopes she can present at similar conferences in the future as the research experience solidified her hope to one day return to school as an accounting professor. 

As for Simpson, seeking a dual degree in computer science and finance, he hopes to pair the two areas of study and explore a wide breadth of research topics before he graduates. “I would love to integrate the two through fintech or quantitative finance. Something that uses both sides,” he said. “Computer science is always solid. But there is so much creativity in business. It isn’t something that can be easily quantifiable and that’s fascinating to me.”