Several CS Students Earn Fellowships that Recognize Research Efforts

7/22/2022 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Individual acknowledgements include Margie Ruffin’s NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Chen Wang’s Fernbach Postdoctoral Fellowship, Google Fellowships for Tiffany Wenting Li and Efthymios Tzinis, Xiaohong Chen’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship, and Sourav Das’ Chainlink Labs Fellowship.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Since the time she was a first-year student at Spelman College, Margie Ruffin could clearly see the impact computing had on everyday people.

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Margie Ruffin

An internship with a government agency that same year helped cement this in her mind, as she worked alongside computer scientists conducting forensic analysis, reverse engineering, and security analysis. Now, as a third-year PhD student with Illinois Computer Science, Ruffin continues to leverage that motivation to successfully delve further into her information security research focus.

Ruffin’s abilities recently earned her the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP), which will provide three years of financial support through an annual stiped and a cost of education allowance.

More than just the support, though, the fellowship also recognizes and awards students for their research capabilities.

“As a graduate student, the NSF GRFP is one of the most prestigious awards that you can get,” Ruffin said. “Receiving it not only offers validation in my research but the support to keep conducting said research. I am so grateful to have earned this award, because it will allow me to continue my research for the coming years without the worry of funding.”

Gang Wang
Gang Wang

Illinois CS professor Gang Wang, along with Electrical & Computer Engineering professor Kirill Levchenko – who is also an Illinois CS affiliate faculty member – have co-advised Ruffin on the path to her PhD.

When they first came across Ruffin’s graduate admission application, the first thing that stood out to each was her passion for addressing security privacy problems to eventually help people (end users).

Wang said her work has shifted a bit to human-centric security problems, which includes topics like combatting disinformation, protecting privacy of underrepresented populations, and more.

One project that stood out to Wang was work they did together regarding the impact of online disinformation.

“We worked together on a project to develop a forensics tool to detect and highlight manipulated images in disinformation campaigns and run a user study to understand how users perceive the manipulated images and explanations,” Wang said. “The user studies have returned interesting findings, which could inform future designs of user-facing tools to help combat disinformation.

“Margie’s work takes an interdisciplinary approach combining data mining, software analysis, and human-computer interaction (HCI) methods. She learns new skills quickly and applies them to solve our problems. I am very impressed.”

Ruffin, meanwhile, said she has found the atmosphere at Illinois CS most suited to her research aspirations.

She credits the faculty for their depth of knowledge and encouraging approach. But it’s her own ability to motivate and push forward that has led to lasting success thus far in her PhD path.

“I can’t help but feel the meaningful nature of my work when I explain it to people not in the field of computer science,” Ruffin said. “I try to focus on security and privacy research, which directly impacts people. So, I often have conversations with family and friends about what I’m doing. When they share with me their excitement to see the culmination of my projects and how much help they can be to the everyday person, it is often a reminder that I am doing something that matters to someone and to keep going.”

Google Fellowships for Tiffany Wenting Li and Efthymios Tzinis

Fourth-year PhD students Tiffany Wenting Li and Efthymios Tzinis both earned Google PhD Fellowships, which recognize “outstanding graduate students doing exceptional and innovative research in areas relevant to computer science and related fields.”

Tiffany Wenting Li
Tiffany Wenting Li

Li has narrowed her research focus to harness AI and algorithms for use in people’s learning experiences.

Her inspiration stems from growing up in a middle-class family in a coastal city of China, where she came to understand she had better educational resources than many other people in other parts of the country. Li volunteered in various ways, feeling, first-hand, the gap in children’s access to education.

Now under the guidance of co-advisors from Illinois CS, Hari Sundaram and Karrie Karahalios, Li will use the fellowship to further her research.

“Thanks to the many discussions with and inspirations from my advisors and peers, I have recognized the importance of going beyond the feasibility of using AI and algorithms to solve challenges in education,” Li said. “This has led to my current research on how to design these systems from a human-centered perspective and deploy them in ways so that human-AI interaction challenges caused by system imperfection, opacity, and bias do not harm the users.”

Meanwhile, Tzinis started working on machine learning for speech emotion recognition before joining the PhD program here – leading him naturally to try to solve a "more challenging and fundamental" problem in computational audition, such as source separation.

Efthymios Tzinis
Efthymios Tzinis

“At the time I joined the program, four years ago, machine learning and especially deep learning had already started showing promising results for several signal processing problems,” Tzinis said. “As a result, I also believed a lot in this direction and followed the path of using neural networks for audio source separation which, luckily for me, seems to be growing longer and wider as of today.”

His work is done under the supervision of his advisor, Illinois CS professor Paris Smaragdis.

Tzinis considers it a wonderful opportunity to both learn from his advisor’s mastery of this topic, while also taking full advantage of the department’s promotion of collaborative work during his PhD journey.

That journey hasn’t always gone the way Tzinis imagined, as he has been rejected for past awards he felt were within his grasp. But he has also learned the value of trying and failing – only to try again and succeed.

“I feel deeply honored and grateful for being granted the Google PhD fellowship, which is generally considered one of the most renowned awards in the field of CS as a PhD student,” Tzinis said.

Sourav Das’ Chainlink Labs Fellowship

Sourav Das
Sourav Das

PhD student Sourav Das recently described the honor of receiving the Chainlink Labs Fellowship.

“It definitely provides extra cushion to do high-impact and high-risk research during my PhD,” Das said. “Also, I want to thank many of my peers and professors at the University of Illinois, whom I constantly bugged to learn more and more about the most delicate details of many technical topics. I feel fortunate to have found such an open nature toward collaboration and discussion!”

His research with advisor and Illinois CS professor Ling Ren focuses on smart contract scalability, distributed key generation, distributed randomness generation, and consensus algorithms.

The fellowship acknowledges the high level of research in areas like distributed systems, information security, cryptography, human-computer interfaces, blockchains, and game theory/mechanism design.

Recipients earn paid tuition and fees, as well as a $50,000 annual stipend for up to two years.

Xiaohong Chen earns Dissertation Completion Fellowship

Xiaohong Chen
Xiaohong Chen

As PhD student Xiaohong Chen nears the final stages of writing his dissertation, the significance of his research has caught the attention of outlets that can help his pursuit.

That’s why Chen recently earned the Dissertation Completion Fellowship through the Graduate College here at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The fellowship provides a one-year stipend of $20,000, along with coverage of tuition, service fee, health service fee, AFMFA fee, Library fee, and basic dental and vision coverage.

The intent of the fellowship is to free its awardees up from assistantships and other work obligations, allowing them to devote more time on the completion of the dissertation.

Criteria used in choosing the fellows includes the significance of the research, as reflected in the nominee’s proposal and the letters of support, the student's productivity and efficient progress toward the degree as shown in the academic record, and the likelihood that the student will defend and deposit the dissertation by August.

Work in formal semantics of programming languages is something that Chen has found particularly fascinating.

This process began after graduating as a mathematics student from Peking University. Upon learning just how promising Illinois CS professor Grigore Rosu’s research lab, Formal Systems Laboratory, is in the study of the K formal semantics framework, the student made the idea of using his mathematical background a useful component of making K more trustworthy, safe, and secure.

“This idea has eventually turned into the main topic of my PhD thesis,” Chen said. “My research thus addresses the community’s needs for a more trustworthy K, by generating complete, rigorous, human-accessible, and machine-checkable logical proofs. These logical proofs become the correctness certificates, bringing the best-known assurance levels to software and computers, in a way that non-experts will also understand and accept as part of their lives.”

Chen Wang’s Fernbach Postdoctoral Fellowship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Chen Wang
Chen Wang

From the moment he first heard about high performance computing and the existence of supercomputers in a parallel computing course as an undergraduate student, Chen Wang immediately became fascinated.

That initial moment took place when he was a sophomore undergraduate student at Tianjin University in China.

Nearly 10 years later, Wang is now a fifth-year PhD student with Illinois CS. He has turned that inspiration into a research progression so successful he just earned the Fernbach Postdoctoral Fellowship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“I was excited and relieved to find out I earned the Fernbach Fellowship,” Wang said. “Lawrence Livermore was my first choice, when I considered how to continue working on parallel I/O research with the same team I have been working with.

“Also, the Fernbach Fellowship is a prestigious fellowship and is highly competitive. I was so excited when I was selected, but I had also turned down other opportunities so I could focus on this interview – which is why I was also very relieved to know I made the right choice.”

For up to three years, according to the Lawrence Livermore website, Wang and the other fellows receive “a highly competitive salary, moving expenses, and a professional travel allowance. In addition, fellows will work in a cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research environment with accomplished researchers and will have access to Livermore Computing’s world-class HPC environment.”

As a student, Wang credited his advisor, Illinois CS professor Marc Snir, with presenting proper guidance and wonderful connections to help his research career.

“I could not imagine a better advisor for my PhD study. Professor Snir has a great mind and is one of the nicest and most intelligent people I ever met,” Wang said. “We have been collaborating with Lawrence Livermore since 2019, when I did my summer internship there with Kathryn Mohror. We both share the same research interest in improving I/O performance for HPC applications, and we both believe that the current I/O standard, POSIX, is overkill (in terms of consistency) for most HPC applications.”

With the fellowship, Wang said he feels the freedom to conduct research according to his own agenda, now with access to some of the fastest supercomputers in the world.

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This story was published July 22, 2022.