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2019 Dissertation Grant recipients embarking on diverse paths to scientific and societal impact

June 11, 2019 | By Meredith Ringel Morris, Principal Researcher and Research Manager

Dissertation Grant Recipients

I’m pleased to announce the winners of the 2019 Microsoft Research Dissertation Grants. Each dissertation grant provides up to $25,000 in funding to doctoral students at North American universities who are underrepresented in the field of computing. This is the third year Microsoft Research has offered these research grants, and it was the most competitive one yet. Microsoft Research scientists with an expertise in the students’ topic areas reviewed the more than 200 proposals submitted and identified students pursuing technically excellent and societally impactful research. From this strong pool of proposals, we awarded research grants to 11 students:

Grant Recipient University Dissertation Topic
Larwan Berke Rochester Institute of Technology “Automatic Speech Recognition as a Captioning Tool: Enabling Greater Accessibility for Users who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing”
Alexander Gamero-Garrido University of California, San Diego “Inferring Country-Level Transit Influence of Autonomous Systems”
Sumegha Garg Princeton University “Understanding the Limits of Computational Models and Learning Algorithms”
Megh Marathe University of Michigan, Ann Arbor “Was That a Seizure? Understanding Everyday Ambiguity in the Clinical Diagnosis and Lived Experience of Epilepsy”
Julian A. Ramos Rojas Carnegie Mellon University “Personalized and Context-Aware Behavioral Interventions Using Artificial Intelligence”
Sonia Jawaid Shaikh University of Southern California “Bounded Technological Rationality: How Human-AI Collaboration Impacts Prosocial and Antisocial Behaviors”
Alexa Siu Stanford University “Advancing Accessible 3D Design for the Blind and Visually Impaired via 2.5D Tactile Shape Displays”
Angelique Taylor University of California, San Diego “Group Perception Methods to Support Human-Robot Teaming”
Troi Williams University of South Florida “Hunting Mosquito Breeding Habitats Using Drones and State-Dependent Measurement Models”
Qian Yang Carnegie Mellon University “Understanding AI as an HCI Design Material: Providing Methods and Tools for Sketching and Prototyping Human-AI Interaction”
Yixue Zhao University of Southern California “Reducing User-Perceived Latency in Mobile Apps via Prefetching and Caching”


The funding in action

All 11 of these students are doing fascinating research, and we’re thrilled to support these rising computing stars in ways that will truly help them advance their work.

Inspired by his own experiences as a person who is deaf, grant recipient Larwan Berke is working on improving the usability of captions produced by automatic speech recognition (ASR) for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The funding will cover the costs of a Microsoft Surface laptop and study participant fees for an experiment to evaluate methods of representing potential error in ASR captions. The funding will also allow him to pay for two undergraduate research assistants, which he’s particularly excited about. “[It’ll] give me an opportunity to mentor them and hopefully push them toward advanced degrees in computing,” he told us.

Alexa Siu’s research also aims to broaden participation in computing. She’s exploring how new fabrication technologies, such as 3D printing, can support joint maker activities between people who are blind or have low vision and people with sight. She plans to use some of the grant funds to purchase a 3D printer and filament, clay, and other prototyping materials.

Troi Williams will use a portion of his grant to support the purchase of a drone kit and depth camera as part of his development of new robotic control models that can estimate variable measurement to help autonomous robots make more informed decisions about real-world tasks. This fundamental AI research is in service of the goal of using unmanned aerial systems to identify mosquito breeding habitats to combat malaria.

Megh Marathe’s research is at the intersection of computation and health, as well. The award will be used to finance an interview study of people with epilepsy and to purchase associated equipment, such as an EEG kit. Marathe is seeking to improve seizure detection by combining ethnographic fieldwork, machine learning, and contextual design.

Sonia Jawaid Shaikh and Qian Yang are both doing research in the area of human-AI interaction. Shaikh’s dissertation work requires the creation of a web portal for conducting an online experiment, and she’ll be using the funds to hire a web developer, cover study participant costs, and cover Microsoft Azure services and storage. Her experiment will explore how AI-based assistants, such as the Microsoft assistant Cortana, among others, might serve as an intervention to nudge decision-makers to increase information sharing in resource-scarce, competitive environments. Yang plans to use a portion of the Microsoft funding to host a “Designing AI” workshop to test methods for user experience professionals to better envision, calibrate, prototype, and evaluate human-AI interactions.

Yixue Zhao will use a portion of the grant to attend the International Conference on Software Engineering and the IEEE/ACM International Conference on Automated Software Engineering so she can share her research results on reducing user-perceived latency in mobile applications via prefetching and caching. “The biggest value of this grant to me is the travel opportunities it provides for me to meet other successful researchers, inspirational role models, and potential mentors and collaborators that may have a lifetime impact on me, especially since I am still at the early stage of my career and there is so much that I can learn from other people,” she said.

Career coaching and networking

The above represents just some of the ways these research grants are supporting award recipients. In addition to receiving the grant funding, they’re invited to visit the Microsoft Research headquarters in Redmond, Washington, this October to participate in a two-day PhD Summit workshop. The winners of the Microsoft Research Ada Lovelace Fellowship and PhD Fellowship will also be in attendance.

The event will provide an opportunity for the students to discuss their dissertation work with Microsoft Research scientists, learn about related efforts underway in Microsoft Research labs, and receive career development advice. I’m eagerly looking forward to that event, where I’ll get the opportunity to meet all of these talented students in person!

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