#WeAreDrexelECE: Ph.D. Student Ophelia Wells

Ophelia Wells is a Ph.D. student in Drexel University's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. We asked Ophelia a few questions about her research and what drove her to pursue an engineering doctoral program. Ophelia's faculty advisor is Dr. Youngmoo Kim, Professor in the ECE Department.

Can you share a bit about your research and how you became interested in this topic?


My brother is a military veteran. When he came back to the U.S. from his last deployment, he wasn’t sure of what he wanted to study in college. He spent a significant amount of time “learning by doing” and trying out different fields. I wanted to develop a way for my brother, and others in similar situations, to efficiently learn about different fields by “doing.” Virtual reality (VR) presents a more cost-effective solution for experiencing various fields of study over a shorter time period.

My research focuses on developing algorithms to predict human responses to virtual environments (VEs). We’re currently using machine learning techniques and physiological signals (e.g. heart rate and skin conductance) to better understand the human response to various technical features of a VE. Ultimately, we aim to create robust algorithms that can help us develop more effective VEs that improve learning outcomes for students.

Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?

After completing my second master’s degree, I was introduced to machine learning and deep learning. With previous experience using physiological signals and embedded systems to treat injuries, I immediately recognized the immense benefits of applying machine learning techniques to solve problems. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. to gain expertise in applying machine learning techniques to improve human-computer interactions using physiological data, especially in the areas of VR and education. I intend to use the skills I gain throughout the doctoral program to advance educational applications of VR.  

What's a unique and interesting opportunity that you've experienced since you've been at Drexel?

Drexel’s 2018-2019 commencement was a special moment for me, as the CEO of the company I work for became an honorary Dragon. Witnessing Dr. Ken Frazier, who has overcome numerous challenges throughout his life, receive a doctoral degree from Drexel was very inspiring. In some ways, Dr. Frazier’s presence at Drexel’s commencement was a subliminal message of encouragement to me. That day, I was reminded of the unique journey I am on as a Ph.D. student at Drexel and Engineer at Merck & Co.

Can you share how you manage the responsibilities of your life and job with the responsibilities of being a student?

Two words: coffee and prayer. Juggling work, school, family life and being a new homeowner is certainly challenging. However, having one of the world’s greatest advisors in Dr. Youngmoo Kim and one of the greatest bosses in Dr. Wail Rasheed at Merck & Co., has made this an enjoyable journey. Both Dr. Kim and Dr. Rasheed are flexible and extremely supportive. Making progress in my work and education often means multitasking (e.g. analyzing data on lunch breaks, using text-to-speech apps to listen to literature while commuting to work, etc.) and dedicating weekends to research. Even so, I have a wonderful support system, including my family, my church and my co-workers, that motivates me every day.

What is the community like in the ECE Department? 

While on campus, I spend most of my time in the ExCITe Center, which has an extremely vibrant and creative community. Though my time outside of the ExCITe Center is limited, I have thoroughly enjoyed the ECE events that I’ve attended. At my first ECE event for graduate students, [ECE Department Head] Dr. Steven Weber candidly spoke with me about my research. His open-minded and supportive feedback spoke volumes of the culture within the ECE Department. During my first year at Drexel, I have found everyone I’ve interacted with, including faculty, staff and students, to be highly engaging, supportive and enthusiastic to learn more about creative, transdisciplinary research. Though I’ve been in the ECE department and COE for a year, I still have much to learn about Drexel’s engineering community. I look forward to engaging with and learning more about the collaborative culture that I’ve experienced thus far.