You are here

From Fruit Flies to Robots: Research Sheds Light on our Future

Grad students present their best work at annual Inspiration, Innovation, Impact showcase on Feb. 2.

Campus News  |  Jan 30, 2018  |  By Vaneh Darakjian
Beth Wi waves to robot Pepper

Beth Wi, a hospitality master's student, at the Mandarin Oriental with the robot concierge Pepper. A presenter at the upcoming Inspiration, Innovation, Impact event, Wi studies the role of technology/robots in the hospitality industry. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)  

Someday instead of trotting to the hotel front desk to pick up a replacement toothbrush or razor, you may find the forgotten item delivered to your door by a hospitality robot.

Robots are the wave of the future in the hospitality industry, according to UNLV graduate student Beth Wi, whose current research focuses on how to get the public to expect and accept such robots. 

Wi is one of several presenters who will talk about their research at the fifth annual Inspiration, Innovation, Impact reception, an event hosted by the Graduate College and the Graduate & Professional Student Association. Showcasing outstanding student research, scholarship, and creative activity, the reception will take place 4 to 6 p.m. Feb. 2 in the Student Union ballroom. The event is open to the public.

Wi, a student in UNLV’s dual master’s program in business and hotel administration, said she is looking forward to sharing her findings, noting “My research is useless unless I share it with the public.”

Here’s a preview of the presentations that Wi and two others will make at the event.

Beth Wi, 

Dual MBA/MS in Hotel Administration student

Wi’s interest in researching robotics in the hospitality industry was sparked when she heard in professor Mehmet Erdem’s class that 65 percent of hospitality jobs soon may be replaced by robotics.

“In the beginning, I wanted to defend that robots will never be able to replace people, but it’s happening,” Wi said. “Now my thesis will be about how we can incorporate robots in the hospitality industry so they’re not met with a bunch of resistance.”

Wi said that the successful implementation of robots in the industry is dependent on communicating to consumers the benefits the robots will bring.

“Imagine a housekeeping robot. Maybe you just need a toothbrush at 7 a.m. and you’re in pajamas with no makeup on. You don’t want to see anyone. A robot would be beneficial then.

“When you take an Uber, soon they might have facial recognition so they know what kind of ads to show you based on your age or gender. But isn’t that a little creepy?” Wi said. “My research will recommend how to implement things like this so they’re successful.

Originally from Korea, Wi earned her undergraduate degree in hospitality from UNLV in 2006 before moving to Hong Kong. She recently returned to Las Vegas to work on her master’s degree. She has worked as a flight attendant overseas and also has held hotel jobs in Las Vegas. Now she’s researching how cultural differences might affect the acceptance of robots in the hospitality industry.

“In Asia, there is no tipping. So, the relationship between employees and patrons is different in Asia than it is in the U.S,” she pointed out. “In the United States, having robots will break the service cycle. My research will recommend how to implement them successfully.”

Jeremy Houska, ’10 PhD Psychology

Director for Institutional Research and Assessment, Centenary University

When Jeremy Houska graduated with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, he had his sights set on becoming a professor. He soon accepted his first tenure-track teaching position at Concordia University-Chicago, and subsequently joined the faculty at Centenary University in New Jersey, where he earned promotion and tenure. Today, he’s the director for institutional research and assessment at Centenary.

“I now enjoy serving the institution as an administrator. I love the intellectual challenge of running an institution,” he said. “I want to come back and share with the students (at Inspiration, Innovation, Impact) that ‘Right now you’re interested in research and teaching, but always be mindful of the skills you’re acquiring. Working productively with other people, communicating your message in diverse contexts, tenacity … those are important skills.’”

“My presentation will feature three tips for today’s graduate and professional students,” said Houska, who served as UNLV’s Graduate & Professional Student Association president in 2007-08. “It will be nice to come back and see what graduate student leaders are doing and thinking about in higher ed.”

Alexis Billings, Postdoctoral Scholar, Biology

To most people, fruit flies are a nuisance. To Alexis Billings, they might hold answers about how new species form.

“Hawaiian fruit flies have really cool behaviors and communication. Within their behavior, there are tons of signals, but we don’t know a lot about the reception of these signals,” said Billings. “I’m interested in learning how these signals may be a way that new species can form.”

Billings, a postdoctoral scholar in UNLV’s School of Life Sciences, earned her Ph.D. in Organismal Biology and Ecology from the University of Montana in 2016. Her thesis was on the ecology and evolution of avian alarm call signaling systems.  

“One of the key questions in evolutionary biology is ‘Where do species come from?’ There are tons of new species, and evolution is continuing with no direction — there’s no end point,” she said. “Understanding how species came to be…helps us figure out where we’re going.”

Billings said she is looking forward to sharing her research and hearing about others’ research at the Inspiration, Innovation, Impact event.

“I’m really excited to see the other presentations. I just started my postdoc in September, so I’m excited to learn about other research happening at UNLV.”