The Last Mile Education Fund recently announced it had chosen its 10 undergraduate students to receive a $10,000 fellowship to promote diversity in computing research. Among these 10 students was Virginia Tech’s own Daniel Tolessa, a junior from Reston, Virginia majoring in computer science. 

Tolessa is using his fellowship to work at Tufts University in Massachusetts through a program called DIAMONDS (Directed, Intensive And Mentored Opportunities in Data Science). The program is a 10 week research immersion experience that aims to connect students in computing sciences with faculty mentors, provide research training, and encourage them to pursue graduate education. Tolessa’s work will explore different ways of approaching the visual analysis aspects of data sciences.

The fellowship, funded primarily by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Hopper-Dean Foundation, aims to help close the economic gaps found in undergraduate research experiences (REUs).

Unfortunately, many of the stipends-- usually provided by the National Science Foundation-- barely cover relocation, transportation, housing, and food. Many industry internships are able to offer a lot more financially, leaving many research opportunities unfilled, and many low income students unable to participate. 

Tolessa first learned about REUs in his first-year seminar class at Virginia Tech, where professors and guest lecturers came to class to emphasize the importance of research experiences in the undergraduate years.

Ten images of the students receiving Last Mile Fellowships.
Computer science junior Daniel Tolessa, second from right on bottom row, was one of 10 students to receive a $10,000 fellowship from the Last Mile Education Fund's pilot program.

“I’m still kind of thinking about whether I want to go to the industry, or would I want to go to graduate school,” he said. “So doing this research will help give me that answer. It feels a little bit overwhelming to do research, but with this experience, it gives you that confidence. It can also help me expand my network with the professors and faculty members here at Tufts.”

The Last Mile Fellowship pilot program was developed to help bridge this gap and cover some of the financial insecurity of REUs, given their importance to the undergraduate experience and the pipeline it creates to graduate education.

“Enabling all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, the opportunity to explore research careers serves both those goals,” said Janet Coffey, program director, Science Learning at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “We are hopeful this pilot program will provide insight into the ways financial factors limit participation in REUs and uncover potential solutions to address these obstacles.”

On campus, Tolessa is also a member of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Eritrean-Ethiopian Student Association. When asked about the importance of diversity in STEM fields like computer science, he explained, “Whenever you have diverse students in those industries, you get to have different perspectives on how to solve a problem. It’s also beneficial because you want the solution to be used by everyone.”

The range of student diversity tends to decrease into the more advanced computer science classes, Tolessa said, making it all the more important for Virginia Tech to support the student programs that aid underrepresented groups through their more challenging academic years.

David McPherson, a professor in the Department of Computer Science, writes about Tolessa being a “successful student” who was “able to work independently and synthesize knowledge to create working software solutions.”

Tolessa, meanwhile, describes McPherson as “one of my favorite professors at Tech” who was able to provide him with the help and support needed to excel in his computer science classes. He also credited his advisor, Leigh Ann Byrd, with helping him through the application process for the Last Mile Fellowship.

--Written by Hannah Lee, a student intern with the Department of Computer Science