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Three students from UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) have been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship: Thanasi BakisPratyush Muthukumar and Samuel Showalter. Two additional ICS students, Mikaela Nishida and Hayden Freedman, received an honorable mention.

The Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in STEM disciplines across the U.S. Students awarded the fellowship receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, as well as $12,000 paid directly to the university to cover tuition and fees. The GRFP has a history of selecting recipients who go on to achieve high levels of success, and these ICS recipients, conducting cutting-edge work in statistics and in AI and machine learning, already show great potential.


Thanasi Bakis received his bachelor’s degree in data science from UCI in 2020 and then continued on for his master’s degree in statistics. “I am so honored to receive this fellowship and incredibly thankful to all the faculty and students in ICS who have been mentors to me, not only when applying for the fellowship but throughout my time in the master’s program,” says Bakis. “With this support, I’m excited to further explore problems through the lens of computational statistics when I start my Ph.D. in the fall!” In particular, his research interests revolve around Bayesian inference. “My NSF proposal explored how deep generative models and Bayesian inference could come together to improve real-world data compression performance — a relevant research topic now that hybrid learning has increased the demand for internet bandwidth,” he says. “I am also interested in making applications of Bayesian inference computationally efficient more broadly, for example in biological sciences.”

Pratyush Muthukumar

Pratyush Muthukumar will earn his bachelor’s degree in computer science this spring before moving on to pursue his master’s degree at Stanford University. “When I received word that I was an NSF GRFP fellow, I was amazed and thrilled to have received such an exceptional award,” he says. “Being named an NSF GRFP fellow reflects upon the dedication and hard work that my research mentors, Dr. Pramod Khargonekar and Dr. Deepan Muthirayan, the UCI Scholarship Opportunities Program, and I have invested throughout my undergraduate career.” For his graduate studies, he will be involved in AI research, specifically in the field of deep reinforcement learning. “I hope to contribute to lasting cutting-edge AI research in my future career.”


Samuel Showalter, a computer science Ph.D. student focused on machine learning, was shocked to learn he had received the fellowship. “Honestly, my first reaction was disbelief,” he says. “However, after I realized I had won, I called my family to share the good news. It is a tremendous honor to be awarded such a prestigious fellowship, and I hope my work will do it justice.” His work aims to improve human trust in machine learning. “The primary hurdle to better leveraging ML breakthroughs in society is trust and understanding,” he explains. “Even if a machine can complete a task better than a human, you will probably still prefer a human if this task is of high importance to you, or if the machine is not well understood. I hope, over time, my work can contribute to fostering better trust in and understanding of what machine learning can offer society.”

— Shani Murray