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Iris Cong, a fourth year undergraduate computer science major, and Jennifer Zou, a second-year computer science graduate student, have been named recipients of the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship. Ruth Johnson, a fourth year undergraduate who will be joining the computer science department as a Ph.D. student next year, was also named an Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention. The competitive fellowship recognizes “outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions.” It is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind and has a long history of rewarding scholars who go on to be lifelong leaders, including past U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, founder of Google Sergey Brin, Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, and numerous Nobel Prize winners. While the fellowship is primarily geared towards graduate students, undergraduates are also permitted to apply in their senior year, and are judged based on the same criteria as graduate students.  

The fellowship provides a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees. In addition to the monetary awards, fellows are given opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct research at any accredited U.S. graduate institution they choose.

Jennifer Zou is a second year computer science graduate student at UCLA. She is co-advised by Jason Ernst, an assistant professor of biological chemistry and computer science, and Eleazar Eskin, an assistant professor of human genetics and computer science. She completed her undergraduate degree at Duke University, and came to UCLA to pursue her Ph.D. in computer science.

“This fellowship is extremely competitive, and there are many worthy candidates,” Zou said. “I feel very honored to have received it.”

Zou’s current research focuses on the integration of large genomic datasets and applying machine learning methods to discover the biological basis of complex diseases. “I’ve always been interested in the biological mechanisms of complex phenotypes, like height and disease progression. However, biological tools are not sufficient to answer the kinds of questions that I am interested in,” Zou explained. “Computer science allows me to analyze the vast quantity of biological data from high-throughput sequencing in a systematic way and gives me a unique perspective to solving biological problems.”

In the long run, Zou aims to develop novel methods in computational biology, and hopes her research will help in providing early diagnosis and more effective treatment of diseases.

Iris Cong is finishing up her last year studying computer science as an undergraduate at UCLA. Her main research interests lie at the junction of condensed matter physics and engineering, with a focus on making quantum computing practical in the post-Moore’s Law era. While she has not yet decided on her graduate institution, she is set on pursuing a career in research and academia.

“I’m thrilled to receive this fellowship,” Cong said. “It’s such an honor, and having three years of support like this will give me lots of flexibility to explore new topics when I start my graduate studies.”

Cong’s passion for quantum computing stemmed from her interests in the fields of computer science, physics, and mathematics, all of which are utilized in quantum computing. She’s also excited by the growing importance of the field, saying, “Because Moore’s Law exponential scaling may be approaching an end, quantum computing is becoming a very important field as it provides one promising solution to this upcoming challenge.”

Ruth Johnson is also a senior finishing up her undergraduate career at UCLA. While Johnson is currently pursuing a degree in mathematics of computation, her main research interests lie in computational genetics, which uses computer science to develop methods to detect genes that are responsible for contributing to complex traits and diseases. She will be returning to UCLA to pursue her Ph.D. in computer science, where she will be advised by computer science professor Eleazar Eskin.

“I’m really surprised,” Johnson said in reaction to being named a GRF honorable mention. “It’s nice to know I’m headed in the right direction, and it’s really reaffirmed that I’m pursuing something I have a lot of potential in.”

Johnson attributes her interest in computational genetics to the opportunities it presents in applying highly theoretical fields like computer science and mathematics towards solving problems applicable to real life. She also hopes pursuing her Ph.D. will allow her to further explore her research interests, and dive deeper into problems she feels she’s only touched the surface on.

In addition to Cong and Zou, 36 UCLA students and alumni total were named recipients of the 2017 fellowship, with their research fields ranging over psychology, biology, electrical engineering, computer science, and number of other STEM-related fields.