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PratyushMuthukumarPratyush Muthukumar, a third-year computer science major in UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), has been named a 2021 Goldwater Scholar by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. The highly competitive award is given to academically promising sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in natural science, mathematics or engineering. The Goldwater Scholarship provides annual financial support that is equal to the cost of tuition, mandatory fees, books, and room and board minus the amount of support from other sources, up to a maximum of $7,500.

At 17 years old, Muthukumar started out at California State University, Los Angeles before transferring to UCI in fall 2020. Instead of attending high school, Muthukumar attended the Early Entrance Program at Cal State LA. He was required to complete a summer program, which ultimately determined his acceptance into the Early Entrance Program. Selected alongside 20 other students from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants, Muthukumar became an undergraduate student at only 14 years old.

Muthukumar shared what it was like to start college at such a young age. “Due to my accelerated education, I have had to clearly define my career goals and future aspirations much earlier than others. These experiences have allowed me to solidify precisely what I hope to accomplish in my educational and professional career,” he says. “Currently, at UC Irvine, I am still surrounded by peers four to five years older than me, and also I’m a transfer student, but I have learned adaptability and flexibility from my previous and unique experiences.”

Muthukumar has a plethora of past and current undergraduate research experience. In the first year of his college education, Muthukumar was a student researcher at the USC Viterbi Information Sciences Institute, where he conducted an interdisciplinary project dedicated to developing artificial intelligence-based traffic monitoring systems for semi-autonomous vehicles.

Currently, Muthukumar is working on multiple research endeavors as a UCI student. He is working on a project funded by the city of Los Angeles and NASA to predict spatiotemporal air pollution in LA and its health effects on residents. At Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he develops software-defined networks at the exascale in the era of big data, machine learning and cloud computing. Through UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program, Muthukumar is investigating deep learning for an empathy-based AI chatbot under the mentorship of Professor Pramod Khargonekar, UCI vice chancellor for research and Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “This empathetic and human-like AI healthcare chatbot can be used to assist patients dealing with depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health issues,” explains Muthukumar.

To Muthukumar, conducting research during his undergraduate years was a natural choice due to his intense curiosity, general interest in asking questions and exploring the intricacies of problems. “I enjoy being able to understand and develop cutting-edge research among brilliant peers and mentors,” says Muthukumar. Being a witness to the impacts of technology on the world inspired him to pursue computer science as his major. “Watching the world being changed by self-driving cars, intelligent AI assistants and retail recommender systems inspired me to join this extremely new and growing field as it will certainly play a larger role in our future society,” he says.

After getting his bachelor’s degree in 2022, Muthukumar plans to pursue graduate education in machine learning. “My career goals are to develop ethical and effective machine learning models to increase interconnectivity and altruism among people,” he says. Muthukumar notes that these machine learning models are especially necessary in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The isolation of humans is exacerbated by the pandemic, so researchers will have to work faster on developing AI-powered technology that fosters community and compassion. The rates of suicide, addiction and depression are skyrocketing, and with a future filled with AI, we can develop human-facing AI models to promote altruism and empathy among people to increase the interconnectedness of our society.”

On being named a Goldwater Scholar, Muthukumar says: “I am thrilled and honored to receive such an exemplary award. My research mentors and the UCI Scholarship Opportunities Program have been very instrumental in my success. Receiving the Goldwater Scholarship will undoubtedly motivate and help me in achieving my goals of pursuing graduate education and conducting cutting-edge research in the future.”

Muthukumar’s mentor, Khargonekar, was proud to hear about his scholarship win. “I was absolutely delighted to learn that Pratyush has been selected for the very prestigious Goldwater scholarship and am very proud of him,” he says. “He is one of the very best students I have known in my entire career. I am confident that he is destined to achieve great success in his future endeavors.”

Muthukumar is one of two UCI students who have won this prestigious scholarship. The Goldwater Foundation has awarded 9,456 scholarships since 1989. Scholarship winners have gone on to win other awards, including the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Fellowship, Rhodes Scholarship, Churchill Scholarship and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.

– Sherry Ngo