Support for under-represented Ph.D. students in computer sciences

Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant program

By Lynn Parker, Writer, Microsoft

The Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant program offers financial support to selected doctoral students from groups that are under-represented in the field of computing in the form of grants to complete their dissertations. The grants were announced today, so I sat down with Dr. Meredith (Merrie) Ringel Morris, chair of the Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant program and a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, to find out more about the recipients.


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Lynn: What is the goal of the Dissertation Grant program?

Merrie: Microsoft Research is interested in supporting and increasing the diversity of computer science talent from under-represented groups, such as people of color, women, and people with disabilities. We truly believe that diversity fuels innovation. Often, these same groups have fewer resources for conducting their Ph.D. research. So we created the Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant to support students from diverse backgrounds with research funding, up to USD$20,000 each, as well as mentorship through a special career workshop we’ll be holding this fall.

Lynn: Who was eligible to apply?

Merrie: This grant program targets students in their fourth year or beyond of doctoral studies, and was open to students currently under-represented in computing, including women, people with disabilities, and people who are African-American, Latino, American Indian, or Pacific Islanders. Microsoft has a commitment to grow the percentage of such students obtaining computing degrees, to ultimately diversify the high-tech workforce.

Lynn: Who are the recipients?

Merrie: We received 200 applications, and chose an amazing group of twelve to receive this inaugural year’s awards. The recipients’ proposed dissertation research reflects a wide variety of computing topics, including AI, robotics, hardware, cryptography, information visualization, systems, networking, human-computer interaction, and technology for emerging markets. The awardees are:

Ebuka Arinze, Johns Hopkins University, “Nanoengineering for Tunable Energy-Efficient Optoelectronics”

Juan Camilo Gamboa Higuera, McGill University, “Transfer of Robot Motor Behaviors from Low-Fidelity Domains”

Esha Ghosh, Brown University, “Efficient, Privacy-Preserving, Secure Cloud Computation and Storage”

Kavita Krishnaswamy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “Smart Algorithms via Knowledge Management of Safe Physical Human-Robotic Care”

Himabindu Lakkaraju, Stanford University, “Interpretable Machine Learning for Human Decision Making”

Paula Mate, Indiana University, Bloomington, “Examining the Implementation of the Health Information System in Mozambique: Understanding the Experiences of Health Care Workers with ICTs”

Martez Edward Mott, University of Washington, “Accessible Touch Input for People with Motor Impairments”

Shadi A. Noghabi, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “Building Large-scale Production Systems for Latency-sensitive Applications”

John R. Porter, University of Washington, “Understanding and Improving Real-World Video Game Accessibility”

Andrew S. Stamps, Mississippi State University, ”Applications of Heterodox Rendering Methods to Visualization”

Vasuki Narasimha Swamy, University of California, Berkeley, “Real-time Ultra-reliable Wireless Communication”

César Torres, University of California, Berkeley, “Hybrid Aesthetics – A New Media Framework for the Computational Design of Creative Materials, Tools, and Practices within Digital Fabrication”

Lynn: How did you select the grant recipients?

Merrie: The most important criterion was scientific excellence of the research itself. Each applicant had to submit a description of their dissertation research, and how they would spend the grant. These proposals were reviewed by Microsoft Research experts in their respective fields, looking at scientific merit and impact of the research to be supported by the grant.

Lynn: What are some examples of how awardees will be using the grant funds?

Merrie: While all of the winners have interesting stories and research, a few I’d like to highlight are:

John R. Porter is a student at the University of Washington who conducts research on making gaming more accessible to people with motor disabilities, an exciting challenge in the domain of human-computer interaction. John proposed using some of his grant money to attend an academic conference via a telepresence robot, since travel can be challenging as a wheelchair user. He also will use some of the funds to hire an undergraduate assistant to perform physical tasks during user studies.

César Torres is a student at UC Berkeley whose research focuses on new techniques for automated fabrication. His grant will help him purchase materials to explore the use of augmented reality interfaces to supported fabrication processes, including a Microsoft HoloLens and Microsoft Surface Pro 4 devices, as well as various 3D printing supplies and a thermoimaging camera.

Esha Ghosh is a student at Brown University working in cryptography and security. She requested funds to support paying an undergraduate research assistant to further advance her research capabilities, for hardware and Azure cloud storage to run her experiments, and to support travel to diversity conferences for professional development (the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing).

Paula Mate is a student at Indiana University; her dissertation research focuses on technology for the developing world. She applied for grant monies to travel to conferences in order to present her research findings on the development of technology infrastructure for healthcare, such as the Strategic Narratives of Technology in Africa Conference.

Lynn: Tell me about the two-day mentorship event that’s part of this program.

Merrie: In addition to the grant, this award includes an exciting mentorship opportunity. All the grantees received an all-expenses-paid two-day Dissertation Grant Workshop, where they are paired with scientists in their field at Microsoft Research Redmond Lab. During this event, recipients will present a talk describing their dissertation research, and will receive feedback on their work from a panel of Microsoft researchers. They’ll also get to meet one-on-one with Microsoft’s research scientists and product team members whose expertise aligns with their dissertation topic, network with senior leaders from Microsoft’s AI and Research division, and receive advice about post-doctoral career options.

Lynn: This was the first year of the program. Will it become an annual program?

Merrie: Yes. This is the first year of a continuing program. We’re extremely pleased with the participation we received this year, and are looking for even more traction—and applicants—in future years. Microsoft wants to encourage and support members of under-represented groups to pursue careers in computer science, and this program is one way to help build and strengthen the talent base of diverse research scientists and academics.

For a complete list of awardees and their projects, visit our Dissertation Grant Program page.


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