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2020 Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant supports students’ cutting-edge work

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A compilation of headshots of the 2020 Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant recipients: Rogerio Bonatti, Kianté Brantley, Mayara Costa Figueiredo, Sami Davies, Farah Deeba, Anna Fariha, Diego Gómez-Zará, Zerina Kapetanovic, Urvashi Khandelwal, and Shruti Sannon

This year marks the fourth year of the Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant, which offers grants of up to $25,000 to support the research of students nearing the completion of doctoral degrees at North American universities who are underrepresented in the field of computing. This was the most competitive year yet for the grant program; about 230 students submitted proposals. While we wish we could have given grants to the entire submission pool, it’s encouraging to see that so many students from underrepresented groups are pursuing advanced degrees in computing and related fields, and I wish all of those who submitted proposals success in their studies!

This year’s grant recipients, along with their respective academic institutions and dissertations, are:

  • Rogerio Bonatti, Carnegie Mellon University, “Active Vision: Autonomous Aerial Cinematography with Learned Artistic Decision-Making”
  • Kianté Brantley, University of Maryland, College Park, “Practical Techniques for Leveraging Experts for Sequential Decisions and Predictions”
  • Mayara Costa Figueiredo, University of California, Irvine, “Self-Tracking for Fertility Care: A Holistic Approach”
  • Sami Davies, University of Washington, “Complex Analysis, Hierarchies, and Matroids—Improving Algorithms via a Mathematical Perspective”
  • Farah Deeba, The University of British Columbia, “Placenta: Towards an Objective Pregnancy Screening System”
  • Anna Fariha, University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Enhancing Usability and Explainability of Data Systems”
  • Diego Gómez-Zará, Northwestern University, “Using Online Team Recommender Systems to Form Diverse Teams”
  • Zerina Kapetanovic, University of Washington, “Low-Power Communication for Environmental Sensing Systems”
  • Urvashi Khandelwal, Stanford University, “Understanding and Exploiting the Use of Linguistic Context by Neural Language Models”
  • Shruti Sannon, Cornell University, “Towards a More Inclusive Gig Economy: Examining Privacy, Security, and Safety Risks for Workers with Chronic Illnesses and/or Disabilities”

Furthering their research agendas

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Our recipients plan to use the grant monies to further various aspects of their research programs; in addition to supporting their tuition, students described the myriad ways in which the funds would further their research agendas.

For instance, Shruti Sannon, who is studying the risks and opportunities a range of gig platforms pose to workers with chronic illness and/or disabilities, plans to use a portion of her grant to compensate gig workers for participating in interviews, noting it’s particularly important that her interview studies pay a fair hourly wage. “Providing compensation that is reflective of a living wage is particularly important given wider concerns with exploited labor in the gig economy,” Sannon says. She also plans to use some of the funds to pay for professional transcription of the interview recordings to facilitate subsequent qualitative analysis.

2020 Dissertation Grant: Shruti Sannon

Shruti Sannon, Department of Communication, Cornell University

Diego Gómez-Zará, who hopes his thesis work will highlight the potential of recommender systems to design and create more diverse teams, plans to use the grant funding to recruit and pay 240 research study participants and to support two undergraduate research assistants, whom he’ll mentor. He’ll also put some of the funding toward conference costs to present his research findings and open-access publication fees to more widely disseminate his research results. “This grant will help us to continue carrying out our team experiments, which require a large number of participants; continue developing new algorithms for our team recommender systems; and test empirically if team recommender systems can enable users to form more diverse teams,” he says.

2020 Dissertation Grant: Diego Gomez-Zara

Diego Gómez-Zará, Computer Science and Communication Studies Departments, Northwestern University

Farah Deeba, who is working to develop a system for better screening placenta health, plans to use her funding to purchase a handheld ultrasound scanner, which she noted will allow her to extend her research to a point-of-care application for pregnancy monitoring. She also plans to use some of her grant to purchase GPUs to speed up data analysis and for conference travel so she can share her findings.

“The placenta, despite being the single most important factor responsible for a healthy baby and a healthy mother, remains neglected in pregnancy monitoring,” Deeba says. “My research aims at changing the current clinical practice. As a woman, I feel a special connection to my research topic. I believe my research will promise health and security to every pregnant woman during this precious but vulnerable stage of life.”

2020 Dissertation Grant: Farah Deeba

Farah Deeba, Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and Robotics and Control Laboratory, The University of British Columbia

Career development and networking

In addition to the grant monies, recipients will also participate in a virtual two-day career development and networking summit this fall, where they’ll join the recipients of many other Microsoft Research fellowships and grants, as well as our research scientists, to discuss their work and receive advice on completing their degree and navigating the post-PhD job market.

Learn more by exploring the research of all 2020 Dissertation Grant recipients.


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