From Family Roots to Cutting-Edge Research: Alanna’s Dublin Adventure with Arcadia


July 2, 2024

Arcadia Abroad interviewed Alanna, a Florida State University student, while she was in Ireland participating in the Arcadia STEM Summer Research - Dublin program.


Arcadia Abroad: What was your greatest motivation for studying abroad? 

Alanna: My mom is a first-generation immigrant from Dublin, Ireland. She moved to the States about 30 years ago and always instilled in me a love of travel. My mom’s family is still in Europe, so growing up it was fun to go abroad, but it was always with family. Not that it’s bad, but I wanted to have an independent experience. 

I'm also in an amazing program at FSU called the Global Scholar Program. In the fall, you take a class on how to ethically engage in other cultures, how to vet potential internships, jobs, and research to make sure it's legit and to make sure you afford it. It's very practical skills, including how you would do something like this study abroad. 

Arcadia Abroad: How did you decide on the Arcadia Abroad STEM Summer Research Dublin program as your study abroad experience? 

Alanna:  With the Arcadia program, it's nice because it's not just taking classes on an FSU campus in Italy. Which I wouldn't complain about! But it's just the fact that it's more independent.

The location of Dublin was big for me because it's where my mom grew up and I wanted to experience that. And Arcadia offered research that was the perfect intersection of my academic areas. I’m a criminology and international affairs major, with a certificate in US intelligence policy and analytics. The Arcadia research project at University College Dublin offered in digital forensics investigation felt so tailored to my interests and my qualifications. I really wanted to get accepted when applied and I didn’t want anything else as much as I did this option. 

Arcadia Abroad: Describe for us the research you are doing.  

Alanna: In my lab it’s me, a Phd student who's a software engineer, and my program instructor (PI). We are building a custom large language model (LLM), which is a type of artificial intelligence for digital forensics investigation which does not exist yet. We're also creating a method of standardization testing for LLMs. 

LLMs in nature are non-deterministic, which means you could ask it the same question, and it could give you different answers. So, we’re working to create one that will give the same and correct answer, no matter how the digital forensics question is worded. And if all goes well, my name will be on the paper, which will be insane for me!

Arcadia Abroad: Wow! It is not always the case that our Arcadia students get to have their name on a research publication, but it has happened before. You are doing some really incredible, cutting-edge research. 

Have you faced any challenges, and if so, how have you overcome them?  

Alanna: The planning wasn’t really challenging because I had so much guidance. And I’ve traveled to Dublin before, so I wasn’t nervous about immigration. 

But being here has been a huge learning curve. I've never done research, because I'm 20 years old and I just finished my sophomore year of undergrad. This program is not going to a classroom, getting information and doing homework assignments. It's very much, do this task, figure it out. I can certainly ask questions! But it's a lot more professional. 

It's also a learning curve to use the technology and the software that I’ve never had access to before because of the price or not having the type of computer that can run it.

Completing my tasks on time would probably be the biggest challenge. I make sure that I am staying on top of my learning. I'm doing independent research on my own and asking questions of my PI and PhD student on my team to make sure I'm not falling behind. 

Arcadia Abroad: Have you gotten to know any other students on the program? 

Alanna: Yes! I have 13 flat mates through Arcadia. We each have our own bedroom and bathroom but share a kitchen. Everyone is doing different research and has independent schedules, but we’ve gotten to know each other. We’re going to go on a trip to Amsterdam next month, which I'm really excited about! I've definitely made friends. 

Arcadia Abroad: What are some of the other research projects students are doing that you’ve heard about? 

Alanna: In computer science, there’s a girl that I met, and she is doing… do you know geospatial intelligence, like gathering information from Google image maps and satellite images? For example, if I showed you a picture of my Florida State campus, you could probably tell that its summertime based on the time of day, shadows, the number of parked cars. Geospatial intelligence is all outdoor images for the most part, but her project is working on geospatial intelligence and software programming for inside images, specifically hotels to aid in human trafficking cases. I really like her project. If I wasn't doing mine, I would probably be doing that one.

Arcadia Abroad: Could you tell us a bit about the typical day-to-day routine? 

Alanna: Every Monday I individually meet with my PI. And then on Thursdays we meet as a group, including the other Arcadia student working under my PI on a different project, to update each other on our work.  

Because I'm doing computer science, I don't have to go into a physical lab every day. I can do some things from home. I will start running software or do some testing or generate my synthetic prompts while making myself breakfast sometimes. And I like to work outside my room. There's a really nice library here on campus. - it's a huge campus! You can sit by the lake, and you'll still have Wi-fi. Some students have been going into the city to do work. I haven't yet done that yet, but I heard that's nice too.

I basically do work up until I'm burned out for the day. I work on my assigned “sprints” and other specific tasks and instructions I’m given. There’s a lot of things that kind of vary day to day depending on what's going on, on campus or in the city. But it's usually the daytime is spent doing work or working out, and then I'll have a work life balance at night.

Some nights I'll let loose. There's a bar on campus called the Clubhouse, and they do karaoke every Tuesday and Thursday. They also do a game night on Monday and trivia on Wednesday. So, at the end of the day when work is done, me and all my Arcadia flat mates might go to the UCD clubhouse and do karaoke or something. We’ve also been watch the Euro football game matches which are on right now and are really big here. A bunch of pride events are happening this upcoming weekend. Also, Taylor Swift's coming to Dublin, so I imagine it's going to be trafficky and pretty wild! 

Arcadia Abroad: What kind of activities and excursions are you doing on your program?  

Alanna:  I did the Belfast day trip with Arcadia and I'm doing the Galway trip in July. I also signed up to go to a play.  Arcadia had a pride movie night the other night, but I was with my granny since it was like her birthday. She still lives here in the same house where my mom grew up, and it's only a 30-minute bus ride plus a 10 min walk to get there. 

And then Amsterdam is the only other trip I’ve planned because I feel the need to make sure everything's done here so I can get on the research paper and because it's expensive to travel and book. I'm staying in a hostel for the first time, fingers crossed!

Arcadia Abroad: What cultural differences have stood out to you being in Dublin as a study abroad student?  

Alanna: Being a student here and being around other Americans experiencing Ireland for the first time is definitely very different. I’ve been spending a lot more time in the city. And all my professors are Irish. So, turn of phrase and things like that I’ve really noticed. A lot of things my mom used to say growing up make a ton more sense being here. There's a phrase called “great crack” or “for the crack” or “good crack.” And it's not the drug! It's the word that Irish people use to describe good fun. Everything in Irish culture is for the sake of good crack, if that makes sense!

The culture is more welcoming and open and casual compared to the States. College life is really different, too. Granted, it's mostly international students right now at UCD over the summer. But the college is, no offense to any American schools, a lot more beautiful because it’s so open and vast. There are nature trails and lakes on campus. It's a very modern school with many new buildings. Like the housing building I'm in is freshly built, and I’m one of the first people to live here. 

Arcadia Abroad: What are some things you are still looking forward to in the last month of your program?  

Alanna: I'm at the halfway point today, actually! I'm having a wonderful time. I'm not really eager to go home yet, but I feel like maybe at the end of these two months I'm going to be ready so I can prep for school and get my bearings together before things start again. 

This weekend my aunt and uncle from France are coming to visit and it's my granny's 86th birthday. So big family time this weekend, and the weekend after is the Galway trip with Arcadia, which I'm really excited about. And then the weekend after is Amsterdam, and then I leave. 

I'm looking forward to all those trips. I just need to make sure that I don't fall behind in any way, either. I have to balance the research I’m doing with the deliverables for the academic credit piece. You don't have anything to write about if you're not contributing a lot to your research, and vice versa. 

I turned in the literature review paper already. It gave my PI an idea of if I had any stark knowledge gaps before I started, so I'm glad I turned in early. I also have to make a poster, which is basically an overview of my whole project. And there is a 4-to-6,000-word research paper, which is 45% of my grade. I'm already writing my final paper. It's due in a month, but I know if I let myself procrastinate, I will procrastinate! 

I'm learning a ton and physically doing the work, which is really interesting. I'm excited for my brain. My brain is very stimulated for sure. 

Arcadia Abroad: What will you take away from this experience academically?  

Alanna: I know so much about artificial intelligence and digital forensics now that I would never have known. It’s such a hot topic right now. Even ChatGPT is a type of LLM that's very common now that I didn't even know about my freshman year. And also that I know how to use the software I do now like LaTeX, Overleaf and basic Python that I didn't know how to do before. I'm excited to have all this knowledge coming back to do my undergrad, because I feel like it's going to make me a more valuable student and an asset to a job or grad school in the future. 

My majors are very liberal arts focused, and this research experience is a lot more tangible. So I think that it's going to be really easy to combine it.