Colin Raffel has officially joined the faculty of the Department of Computer Science as an assistant professor. Raffel received a doctorate in electrical engineering from Columbia University in 2016 and spent the last four years working with Google Brain.
Raffel’s research focuses on developing machine learning techniques, especially semi-supervised, unsupervised, and transfer learning methods for learning from limited labeled data. His work addresses the shortcomings of machine learning that hold back its adoption in practically useful settings, and much of his recent research has been concerned with making machine learning methods less reliant on large labeled datasets to attain good performance. There are many applications where these methods could be useful, but obtaining labeled data is prohibitively time- or resource-intensive. Colin hopes to find solutions that bring machine learning into as many new applications as possible, and he welcomes potential research challenges from anyone who has been unable to apply it to an important problem because of some major shortcoming.
Now that he is in Chapel Hill, Raffel is excited to build a lab and mentor students, something he had limited opportunities to do during his four years in industry.
“I’ve always enjoyed the back-and-forth involved with advising students, where in the best case the advisor learns as much as the student,” Raffel said. “The students I met during my visits were extremely sharp and engaged.”
Raffel said he was drawn to UNC CS because of the department culture and the support system for new faculty. Operations this semester will be far from normal, but Raffel is confident that this is the place to be while he builds a research group and tackles new challenges.
The future leaders of the tech field are learning how to program in churches and libraries right now. And they’re in elementary school. And they’re females.
Rida Bayraktar, Founder of PinkSTREAM, says some girls she works with are already writing down their ideas for startups.
PinkSTREAM aims to increase interest in STREAM fields (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Arts, and Math) especially among girls in elementary and middle schools through free workshops and classes.
Data show that around middle and high school, girls lose interest in STEM, because many times males dominate the space. Bayraktar says she has lived that data.
“Most of the research that has been done, I have already experienced,” she said. “That gives us a big advantage.”
Bayraktar, who is now a rising sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill studying computer science, never thought she would enter the STEM field, because the stereotypical male computer “geek” excluded her.
While a senior at Green Hope High School in Cary, though, she joined the robotics team and became the only girl on a team of 100 students. Bayraktar says most STEM education and environments are targeted toward a male audience.
“So we’re creating educational environments and educational materials for STEM education to be toward girls’ interests as well, so that girls don’t feel left out, and they feel empowered and successful in STEM fields,” Bayraktar said.
A group of full-time students volunteer to run after-school programs for 2-3 hours a week on topics like programming, 3D printing and robotics in community partner locations like churches and libraries.
Bayraktar says they make sure the classes are majority-female, and the free cost of the programs also helps serve low-income children. She says volunteering with PinkSTREAM gives her a much-needed mental break from her computer science classes.
“You go in thinking that you will be teaching something,” she said, “but you learn so many things that you’re amazed. I think we really underestimate children’s abilities and understanding.”
A new look for the ecosystem
Now, Bayraktar embraces being the only girl in the room and other aspects of her identity, though she says she sometimes feels discouraged by people focusing on her ethnicity or appearance.
“I’m young, but also I’m a Muslim,” Bayraktar said. “I’m a Hijabi woman, which is a very, very low minority in these business startup fields. Despite all of this, I never feel like I should stop doing what I’m doing.”
The organization is just in its first year, but Bayraktar has large ambitions. They are in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and she wants to extend PinkSTREAM’s reach across the globe.
Her goal is to become a multi-chapter national organization and eventually serve students internationally. She says community organizations, like religious institutions, can be used more efficiently for the younger generation’s education.
“They are all around the world,” she said. “Wherever you go, no matter how bad the resources are, you still have religious resources. Why don’t we use these places for the betterment of the society for our children learning STEM and changing the world, hopefully?”
Mohit Bansal and Cynthia Sturton were promoted to the rank of associate professor with tenure, effective July 1, 2020. These promotions are given only to faculty members who demonstrate service to the academic community, potential for future contribution, commitment to the welfare of the university and professional competence, including commitment to effective teaching, research, and public service.
“In addition to being leaders in their research areas, Mohit and Cynthia are excellent mentors and teachers and have impacted the department for the better in different ways,” said Department Chair Kevin Jeffay. “Their promotions are well deserved, and they will continue to strengthen the department and university moving forward.”
Bansal leads the Multimodal Understanding, Reasoning, and Generation for Language (MURGe) Lab, as part of the larger UNC Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning (UNC-NLP) Group. His research merges natural language processing with computer vision and robotics, with a focus on processing across several modalities, generating human-like language and dialogue, and creating deep learning models that are robust, interpretable, and generalizable.
Bansal joined the Department of Computer Science in 2016 and also holds a John R. and Louise S. Parker distinguished professorship conferred by the university. He has received prestigious research awards from both government and industry organizations, including the U.S. Army Research Office’s Young Investigator Award, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Young Faculty Award and Director’s Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award, plus the Google Focused Award and Microsoft Investigator Fellowship. His publications have garnered several outstanding paper and best paper honorable mention/nomination awards. He served as the program co-chair for the SIGNLL Conference on Computational Natural Language Learning, and as senior area chair/associate editor for primary NLP conferences and journals.
Sturton leads the Hardware Security @ UNC research group investigating the question of how to validate the security of hardware designs. Her research brings together formal verification, computer security, and computer architecture to develop methods and tools to find, analyze, and correct exploitable vulnerabilities in the chips we use everyday.
Sturton joined the Department of Computer Science in 2013 and holds a Peter Thacher Grauer Fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her research is funded by both government and industry awards, including a Frontier award from the National Science Foundation and a Google Faculty Research Award. Additional funding has come from the Semiconductor Research Corporation, Intel, and a Junior Faculty Development Award from UNC-Chapel Hill. Sturton’s work has been nominated for Best Paper and Top Pick awards in leading architectural conferences, and she has twice served as area program chair for DAC, the leading venue for hardware design automation. In 2018 she was awarded the Department of Computer Science’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.
The events of the past few weeks have called on all of us. We have been asked to reflect on the roles power and privilege play in our lives, both individually and within our communities. We have been charged with dismantling systems in which we all participate that continue to perpetuate racism and violence against Black people in America. Many of us — probably most of us — have come to realize that we cannot do this as individuals; more now than ever, we need to come together as a community to do better.
With education comes responsibility. As technologists and toolsmiths, our ability to use our resources and talents to respond to societal problems and systemic inequities is powerful. We share the commitment to helping to solve the world’s greatest problems.
Our lived experiences shape the ways we move through society. Collectively, as a community here at Carolina, we recognize we are all processing and experiencing the last few weeks in our individual ways. Regardless, the challenges of today call to all of us. And this time feels different — a time in which, if we ignore the call to action, we will have missed an opportunity to shape society for the better.
Consider how you will make your impact. You all have a voice, with an opportunity to contribute to the betterment of your community – both here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and beyond. There are many inspiring stories: Our student leaders for organizations like Black in Technology and Pearl Hacks are already actively engaged. Faculty and alumni created and supported the UNC CS Summer of Code, a project-based learning opportunity for students whose internships were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Class of 2020 UNC CS grad, Nikhil Komirisetti, who created accessible ways to communicate with elected representatives, reminds us all that we can use our talents and skills to make a difference. And we thank all of you that have contributed time and funding to our department — you are helping to support our work moving forward; creating a community that supports the future leaders in our field.
In a time that will require us to come together and rely on each other, we know that you will lead others — with voice and/or action. Although we face many uncertainties, we technologists and toolsmiths know that we all have a role in shaping our future. And together, we can institute a powerful movement towards change — to develop positive solutions to the communities we serve and make the tech industry more equitable.
How will you choose to act? We are asking ourselves the same. It’s time for us to step up to the challenge and make a meaningful difference. Silence and inaction makes us complicit. It’s time to change the course. If you have ideas on how to effect change, please let us know.
Let’s do better,
Brent C. Munsell
Federico Gil Distinguished Professor Henry Fuchs has been named a fellow of the European Association for Computer Graphics (Eurographics). One of only three inductees for the 2020 class, Fuchs was selected for his “seminal contributions to hardware and software systems for computer graphics, augmented and virtual reality.”
Each year, Eurographics selects two to five researchers who have made significant contributions to the field of computer graphics or the Eurographics Association. Fuchs has been active in computer graphics since the early 1970s and earned numerous awards for his contributions to the field. He has also served on advisory boards and planning committees for computer graphics organizations and conferences throughout Europe. He has been a visiting professor at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and at TU Wien in Austria, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate. He gave keynote lectures at Eurographics conferences in 1985, 1997, 2004, and 2016.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, Fuchs leads the UNC Graphics and Virtual Reality Group, whose research covers topics including computer graphics, software and hardware for virtual and augmented reality, telepresence, 3D reconstruction, and simulation.
In addition to Eurographics, Fuchs is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
The full announcement from Eurographics can be found here.
Mathew Atisa’s desire to study computer science began with an interest in computers in middle school, it was further fostered by his courses and extracurricular activities in high school. As a first-year student at UNC he’s enjoying the computer science curriculum, but he’s also excited by the opportunity to challenge himself through participation in undergraduate research and as a young entrepreneur.
As a first-year student, how did you find out about undergraduate research?
I was talking with a friend who was involved with research in a lab on campus, I have always enjoyed solving problems, seeking information, and learning; getting involved with undergraduate research seemed like something I would enjoy. I decided to find out more information about open research positions. I found the database on the Office of Undergraduate Research website, where I saw a posting for an open position in the Computational Biophotonics Laboratory. I emailed Nicolas C. Pégard, Assistant Professor and leader of the lab, soon afterward I started my research position.
The research in the Computational Biophotonics Laboratory is interdisciplinary, an intersection of optics, biology, and computer science – did you have experience in other areas outside computer science before beginning?
Often, as it relates to my experience in research, I think back to a quote posted at my high school by Marissa Mayer, it said, “I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow.” Doing graduate level math and learning to build models using advanced AI is challenging, it has required dedicating a lot of time outside of my classes to build a solid foundation of these concepts. I am glad I’ve done it, there’s so much you can do with sheer willpower and determination. My research group’s project uses AI to make better, faster, and more accurate holographic images; I’m using computer science to solve an applied problem.Deep learning algorithms like ours are perfectly suited to solve multidimensional nonlinear problems like the ones you find in computer generated holography, and with offline training, can eliminate trade-offs between speed and quality. Our method outperforms all others in speed while preserving accuracy.
Outside of research, what other ways are you involved at Carolina?
I also have a few start-up ideas, I have participated in the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party and the Makeathon – programs that provide workshops and mentorship to student entrepreneurs. My friends and I gained valuable experience at these events. One of our ideas is to explore how using AI and leveraging open source code, we can generate game assets that can reduce barriers of entry to video game development by brining down costs. I am also involved with student clubs on campus, OASIS (Organization for African Students’ Interests and Solidarity) and Refugee Health Initiative.
May 10, 2020 would have marked the annual UNC Department of Computer Science Commencement ceremony, but with commencement ceremonies postponed in response to the COVID-19 crisis, spring graduates were honored through creative virtual celebrations, hosted by both the university and the department.
Honoring the Class of 2020
Fueled by a desire to create an experience for graduates that would honor their hard work and dedication, connect as a computer science community, and share in their excitement for the future, the department compiled video messages from faculty and created a virtual class yearbook for the spring graduates. The celebration recognized the conferring of more than 400 degrees, including 208 bachelors of science, 128 bachelors of arts, 56 undergraduate minors, 13 doctors of philosophy, and 11 masters of science.
The video celebration of graduates featured messages from faculty members sharing their encouragement for the Class of 2020, acknowledging their tremendous accomplishments, and looking forward to their future achievements.
Department Chair Kevin Jeffay reflected on the importance of this achievement given the current circumstances, reminding graduates, “this milestone is probably more important this year than any other year.”
“This probably isn’t what you envisioned for graduation, it’s certainly not what I envisioned, but it doesn’t make this date any less important,” Jeffay said. “Completing a computer science degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is always something to be very proud of.”
Teaching Professor Kris Jordan shared, “I’m so proud of how far you’ve come since we first started programming together…the distance you’ve come since then is just incredible. And I look forward to following you as you go out into the world and do even more great things.”
And some took the time to “formally” celebrate, including Professor Jack Snoeyink, who dressed in academic regalia to honor the momentous occasion.
With a piece of advice for graduates, Professor Montek Singh reminded students that as they move forward in their journey beyond UNC, they may be faced with difficult decisions, but challenged students to consider, “the hardest choices often end up being the most inconsequential.”
Other messages reminded students of the ways in which they’ve grown during their time at Carolina.
The Virtual Yearbook for the Class of 2020 also provided students with an opportunity to share their favorite memory during their time in the Department and to share advice for their peers.
What’s Next for Class of 2020?
In a new initiative, the department is collecting detailed data from graduates regarding their future career plans. With 54 percent of undergraduate students in the Class of 2020 completing the survey, the story of these graduates is one to celebrate. During their time at UNC, they were committed to supporting others and more specifically the UNC Computer Science community, with 44 percent working as teaching assistants or learning assistants for a computer science course during their time at Carolina. Nearly half were involved with computer science student club activities, highlighting their commitment to engagement and learning.
After graduation, the members of the Class of 2020 are headed across the United States to begin working for some of the top tech companies and study at the top CS graduate programs. From the Bay Area to Research Triangle Park and all areas in between, the Class of 2020 will make their mark on technology.
The plans for official university and department Commencement ceremonies are still to be determined. To help us celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2020 and to view the video dedication from faculty, please visit the UNC Computer Science Virtual Yearbook page.
We have the distinct privilege of honoring our Top Ten Scholar-Athletes. These students are the five male and five female senior student-athletes with the highest cumulative grade point averages. The ten students being honored include Chancellor’s Award winners, undergraduate researchers, postgraduate scholarship winners, honors students and Phi Beta Kappa inductees. They will graduate with an average GPA of 3.91.
UNC Top 10 Scholar-Athletes
Jamie is a member of the gymnastics team and is from Park City, Utah. She is majoring in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Neuroscience. Jamie has been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and has been on the Dean’s List each of her semesters at UNC. She has been conducting research on air pollution and lung health at the Alexis Lab in the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology. After graduating this month, she will continue her work full time at the Alexis Lab while she is applying to medical school. In five years, she will be about to start her residency.
Andrew is from Ann Arbor, Michigan and is a member of the men’s swimming and diving team. He is a double major in Health Policy & Management and Economics. Andrew has been a member of our 4.0 Club and has also been named to the Dean’s List each semester. He has conducted research for the Center for Health Equity Research on the relationship between opioid dependency, incarceration and HIV/AIDS. After graduation, Andrew will be moving to Chicago to work for Guidehouse Consulting. In five years, he will be enjoying city life, establishing himself in his field and finding time to ski, swim and explore the outdoors.
Brian is from Allendale, New Jersey and is on the men’s fencing team. He is receiving a degree in Political Science with a minor in Information Systems. Brian has been named to the Dean’s List six semesters and has twice been the recipient of the Top GPA Award as a member of the men’s fencing team. He had an opportunity to study abroad in Paris in the Fall 2019 semester. After graduation, Brian will work at a law school in New York City and apply to law school in 2022. In five years, he hopes that he will be finishing up law school and will have found a creative outlet.
Jackie is on the women’s fencing team and is originally from Niskayuna, New York. She is double majoring in Public Policy and Environmental Sciences with the Quantitative Energy Systems track. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, has contributed extensively to the APPLES Service-Learning program and also studied abroad in Israel. After graduation, she plans on working on a political campaign until the November elections and then finding a job in environmental/renewable energy policy. In five years, she would like to be working for a state government where she can design and ensure compliance with renewable energy and energy efficiency standards.
A.J. is from Batavia, Illinois and is a member of the wrestling team. He is majoring in Biomedical and Health Sciences Engineering and minoring in Chemistry. He has been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and named the winner of the Wells Fargo Postgraduate Scholarship. A.J. is also on track to graduate with a perfect 4.0 GPA! After he finishes his degree at Carolina, he will be attending Duke School of Medicine in the fall. In five years, he will be starting a residency in orthopedic surgery.
Liz is on the women’s basketball team and from Chapel Hill. She is an Exercise and Sport Science major with a Sport Administration concentration and a minor in Coaching Education. Liz was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, named the Athletic Director Scholar-Athlete for women’s basketball and has been on Dean’s List each semester. She also had an opportunity to study abroad in London last summer. After graduation, she will attend graduate school and pursue a master’s in Sport Administration. In five years, she will be on the staff of a women’s basketball program and giving back to future generations of female student-athletes.
Hunter Sheridan Hunter is originally from Charlotte and is on the football team. He is majoring in Business Administration. Hunter has been named to the Dean’s List each semester, was a member of the 4.0 Club and was the Athletic Director Scholar-Athlete for football. He also participated as both a student and leader in Kenan-Flagler’s Finance Trek where they visit 10 New York City investment banks in three days. After graduation, Hunter will work in investment banking with Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York. In five years, he hopes to be still pursuing investment banking or private equity in either New York or Charlotte.
Ashley is on the women’s cross country and track and field teams and is originally from Clemmons, North Carolina. She will earn a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science with a Hispanic Studies minor. Ashley has been part of Honors Carolina and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. She also received a Chancellor’s Award this year after being named the winner of the Irene F. Lee Award which is presented to the woman in the senior class who is judged most outstanding in leadership, character and scholarship. After she graduates, Ashley will pursue a Master of Science in Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech. In five years, she will be reshaping and transforming the tech industry.
Ezra is from Washington, D.C. and is a member of the fencing team. He is graduating with a double major in Women’s and Gender Studies and Hispanic Literature and Culture. Ezra was honored with two Chancellor’s Awards in 2020. He won the Mary Turner Lane Award in Women’s and Gender Studies and The Sterling A. Stoudemire Award for Excellence in Spanish. After graduation, Ezra will be working as a community organizer in Durham or Washington, D.C. In five years, he will be living in Ecuador and working in community organization and empowerment for the Ecuadorean people.
Caroline is originally from Sandy, Utah and is on the rowing team. She is double majoring in Business Administration and History with a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics minor. She has been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and was a James M. Johnston Scholar. She completed a Burch Honors Research Seminar in London and Ireland and a Kenan-Flagler Global Immersion in Indonesia and Singapore. After graduation, she will be a financial analyst at the Walt Disney Company. In five years, she will still be a Tar Heel!
In a small corner of Sitterson Hall sits a fleet of pint-size cars that can see and navigate independently, winning races for the team of UNC computer science students that created them. While the stakes are low for these high-tech toys, it’s a completely different game when applied to full-size vehicles in the real-world — the application of professor Parasara Sridhar Duggirala’s research.
Abel Karimi and Charlotte Dorn stand huddled over a laptop, poring over the data streaming in from the toy-sized vehicle sitting next to them. An error pops up over and over somewhere in its circuitry, triggering its emergency brake system and preventing the car from moving forward for more than a few seconds.
The team isn’t sure whether it’s a short in the wiring or something wrong with the car’s wireless receivers, but they are determined to find the cause. Sometimes working with a car that can drive itself can seem like magic. Other times it can feel like a nuisance with a mind of its own.
On its surface, the team’s creation resembles a remote-controlled car with a small body and big, soft tires. It has been modified with custom parts, including a laser sensor that functions as the car’s “eyes” and allows it to drive itself around a track with the data it collects. These data are a series of distances gathered by a light detection and ranging sensor, or LiDAR, fed into an algorithm to tell the car if it is heading toward an obstacle and must turn.
UNC computer scientist Parasara Sridhar Duggirala oversees Dorn, a sophomore, and Karimi, a graduate student, in the autonomous vehicle lab. He acknowledges that there is a lot of hype surrounding self-driving cars. “The hype being that ‘oh, it’s going to come in three years or four years.’ The truth is, designing autonomous vehicles is a hard problem,” Duggirala says. “If you want some sort of safe autonomous vehicle, it is going to take time.”
For modified R/C cars navigating a track made out of cardboard walls, the stakes are low and the problems encountered by the algorithms are simpler, but as Duggirala points out, “when you think of deploying it in a mass scale, the game is completely different.”
The average American drives a little over 13,000 miles a year according to the US Department of Transportation. In 2014, Americans drove a total of 3.04 trillion miles — or half a light-year.
In the future, more of that total driving distance is expected to be covered by self-driving cars, Duggirala says. Even if the self-driving car makes one mistake every billion miles, though, that still amounts to 3,040 mistakes every year.
This risk factor is one of the major reasons why a nationwide rollout of the technology hasn’t come sooner.
That’s not to say that running autonomous vehicles at this scale is without its benefits. “Through the process of researching how to drive these small cars, you learn about how the real cars — [from] companies like Tesla — are operating in real-time,” Dorn says. “Even though a lot of it is small scale, you can kind of get a bigger picture.”
In 2019, the UNC computer science team behind these autonomous vehicles, which included Dorn and Karimi as well as fellow car designers Nathan Otterness and Tanya Amert, participated in an automated vehicle racing competition in Montreal. Titled F1Tenth, the competition is an annual event started by the University of Pennsylvania that brings together 1/10th scale cars from computer science programs around the world to compete against one another seeing who has the best build and the best code.
“We put it on the track for the first time and immediately it just rushed all the other teams and it was much to our surprise. We hadn’t tested it that thoroughly, so I think those first few laps when we realized how well it was doing was really an amazing experience,” Dorn says.
The competition is all in good fun and involves plenty of conversation with other schools to gain insights into problem-solving and development. After the races ended, teams shared the code which ran each car on an open-source platform so they could see where their programming differed.
Because of the program’s success, Duggirala envisions a platoon of autonomous vehicles based on their current designs. The team has built three of the F1Tenth cars and plans to build two more prototypes from the University of Washington. The goal will be to have the cars communicate with each other and travel as a unit.
Beyond that, he says, they can scale up the project and bring the algorithms to full-scale electric vehicles that can drive around campus. Universities with engineering programs like those at MIT and Stanford already offer full scale autonomous vehicles with which graduate students and researchers can test their ideas.
For miniature autonomous vehicles like those built by Duggirala’s team, the LiDAR scanners the cars use to “see” are only getting cheaper, which means more schools should soon be able to join UNC among the handful of schools nationwide with similar programs.
“I had done some robotics before but not in a research environment, Dorn says. “Being introduced to this lab and being able to do these hands-on components is just honestly what I love to do.”
Charlotte Dorn is a sophomore undergraduate student in the Department of Computer Science within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.
Parasara Sridhar Duggirala is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.
Abel Karimi is a research assistant in the Department of Computer Science within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.