It wasn’t an ordinary summer break, but students found plenty of ways to make it meaningful

VCU News interviewed several students about the summer of 2020, including computer science major Steele Farnsworth.

Steele Farnsworth
Computer science major Steele Farnsworth

By James Shea
University Public Affairs


Farnsworth never figured he would spend the summer delving into the world of computers and their understanding of human language. But that’s exactly what he did thanks to a grant from VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Working with Bridget McInnes, Ph.D., an assistant professor of computer science, Farnsworth developed a program to help medical professionals better understand potential adverse drug reactions.

“The goal is for the computer to recognize multiple entities when they represent the same category,” Farnsworth said.

For the project, Farnsworth added a batch of clinical and biomedical information to a database. He wrote a computer algorithm that analyzes the data and identifies examples of adverse drug reactions. The computer looks for patterns and tries to identify similar relationships. The goal is to find circumstances where adverse drug reactions might occur, but the medical community is currently unaware. The work is important, McInnes said, because 30 percent of all adverse events in a hospital are connected to drug reactions.

Farnsworth, a computer science major with a data science concentration, started his college career in Utah as a linguistics major but quickly realized that most careers in the field were in computer science. He transferred to VCU and connected with McInnes, whose research focuses on natural language processing.

Farnsworth lived in Richmond over the summer, but said it was a little odd not being able to go into the lab on a daily basis, as campus was closed. He was able to do the work and communicate with McInnes, but the experience was different.

Farnsworth and McInnes are planning to continue working together on the project this fall. They hope to develop a paper and submit it for publication. Farnsworth said he plans to enter the computer science industry after graduation but has enjoyed working in research.

“It’s been surreal,” Farnsworth said. “I had no idea I would be doing research and that it would possibly be published.” 

Read about the summer experiences of other VCU students.