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Business information technology senior stands out from crowd through toy safety research project

March 2, 2016

Matt Winkler with a child at a toy store
Matt Winkler, a senior majoring in business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business, set himself apart through undergraduate research, using data mining to uncover potentially dangerous toys. Photographed at Imaginations Toy & Furniture Co., in Blacksburg, Virginia.

 

As senior year approached, Matt Winkler of Fallston, Maryland, needed a way to stand out from the crowd of around 175 other soon-to-be business information technology graduates from the Pamplin College of Business.

“I didn't have an internship during this past summer, so I was looking for some sort of relevant experience to put on my resume,” Winkler explained. “I didn't really care about the credit hours, I really just wanted some good experience under my belt.”

Winkler turned to undergraduate research and found more than just something for his résumé. He found real-world insights and connections beyond what he could have asked for. In July 2015, Winkler began working with Alan Abrahams, associate professor of business information technology.

Abrahams joined Virginia Tech in August 2007. In 2012, he began working on the research that would soon translate to his most recent project.

“Professors Patrick Fan and Alan Wang and I did some research on automotive safety surveillance from online discussion forums for automotive enthusiasts,” Abrahams said. “Early in 2015, we got some publicity for that research in the New York Times, and one of the people who saw that was a childhood injury prevention researcher at the National Institutes for Health. He was really interested to see if we could do it for toys. There are concerns about childhood injuries - and toys are a major cause of those injuries.”

As work began for the new toy safety project, Winkler joined Abrahams’ team as an undergraduate researcher.

“Our research was based off of Dr. Abrahams’ vehicle defect surveillance system for automotives, identifying defects from cars using text mining in Amazon reviews. I applied that to the toy industry,” Winkler explained. “I was tasked with going through the industry reviews and meta data to text mine and uncover certain dangerous reviews.”

“We determined that this text mining approach was effective because the results were significant against randomized reviews,” Winkler said.

With the help of five of Abrahams’ undergraduate students, and weekly meetings with Abrahams and a doctoral student also working on the project, Winkler was able to become first author on the research. He was also a part of the team who presented this research to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission in September.

“I’m thankful knowing I’m making a difference and meeting people that are interested in the research,” Winkler said.

“Matt is incredibly hard working and insightful,” Abrahams commented. “He has really good ideas. He can take a large data set, and work magic with it using the software tools we have available. He’s just been brilliant working on the study.”

This research not only allowed Winkler to spend his senior year gaining experience; it also granted him a lasting mentorship that has already benefitted his career overall.

“On top of the research, [Dr. Abrahams] actually contacted a lot of employers about me during my job search, including Deloitte. I eventually interviewed with them and now have a job, and I think he had a lot to do with that,” Winkler said.

Upon graduation this May, Winkler will work as an analytics consultant for Deloitte Federal.

“I definitely know more about text mining now, which will apply to my job as an analytics consultant,” Winkler said. “I’m really interested in data analytics and things like text mining and data mining, so I want to stay working in that area.”

“I wish the salaries weren't so fantastic in the industry at the moment, because we might have a chance to try and recruit outstanding students like Matt into the doctoral program,” Abrahams said. “I think this process has given Matt the confidence to work with not just large volumes of data to develop meaningful insights, but also to work with executives in industry and then in the government. I think developing his communication skills and communication of important insights from data is really helpful and will stand him well as he goes out into the consulting industry.”

Written by Leslie McCrea, a senior majoring in multimedia journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

 

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