On their final home stretch, graduate students said their fellowships made all the difference
August 31, 2021
Alumnus and philanthropist Greg Lavender (master's '88, doctorate '93) endowed the first two Ph.D. fellowships in the Department of Computer Science earlier this year to honor his academic mentors, former department heads Richard Nance and Dennis Kafura.
These fellowships were created to support students in the home-stretch of their Ph.D. studies as they strive to complete their dissertations.
“The idea is that when you reach the point where you need to be 100 percent focused on your research, that’s when unfettered financial assistance really matters,” Lavender said. “It’s when you need to focus and double down, and fellowships can help eliminate other distractions in life, like serving as a teaching assistant.”
Meet Kobla Setor Zilevu
Kobla Setor Zilevu, the first recipient of the Dr. Richard E. Nance Graduate Fellowship in Computer Science, has been able to explore his passion of being a user experience researcher at Virginia Tech. It has given him a front-row seat to design user-friendly interfaces for stroke survivors to assist with in-home therapy.
This was not the path Zilevu saw for himself when he was first applying to college in 2013. At the time, University of Southern California seemed like his clear choice. He had a life-changing moment when his father experienced a stroke, setting the course for Zilevu to attend college much closer to home.
He decided on Virginia Tech with a determined focus to combine his passion for user experience (UX), healthcare, and stroke rehabilitation. As he was drawing closer to his undergraduate graduation, Zilevu’s professor Margaret Ellis told him he needed to meet one of her colleagues, Aisling Kelliher.
“It was a beautiful process,” said Zilevu, who still has the notebook from their first meeting. While pursuing his masters of computer science, Zilevu joined Kelliher’s research team as a user experience researcher at the Interactive Neurorehabilitation Lab.
This would become his second home and provide the perfect backdrop for him to combine all his passions, while also working with unimpaired subjects in the lab to test out the interactive home-based stroke rehabilitation programs he was designing.
“Working with different stakeholders, whether that be the patient, therapist, or even our own internal stakeholders, is truly exciting and rewarding to me,” said Zilevu. “I love understanding why people do what they do, especially within the realm of stroke and implementing how we can make it better.”
Through the fellowship, Zilevu has been able to travel and work with colleagues at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago to advance the research of the INR lab. This fall, he has been able to set up similar interactive home-based stroke rehabilitation programs there to help stroke patients and gather more data to help refine the testing programs.
As he was nearing the end of his master’s studies and starting an internship with Intel, Zilevu said Kelliher championed the idea of him pursuing his doctorate and remaining as a central member of the research lab team.
As he prepares to graduate in December, Zilevu said he has so many people to thank for the experiences he has been given.
"I would like to sincerely thank the donor of the fellowship for this opportunity," said Zilevu. "I am very excited because this fellowship represents accessibility — an important stepping stone that enables me to develop an impactful tool that can meet the needs of patients and therapists within this space."
He credits Kelliher for helping to further his important research and encouraging him along the journey, including a letter of recommendation for the Dissertation Institute, which Zilevu attended this past summer.
Meet Ya Xiao
Ya Xiao, the first recipient of the Dr. Dennis G. Kafura Graduate Fellowship in Computer Science, is a fourth year computer science student whose research lies in deep learning applications in programming languages, software security, and cryptography, including code embedding, learning-based automatic vulnerabilities detection and repair, and neural cryptanalysis.
"The fellowship gave me a great opportunity to devote myself to research for the entire summer this year," said Xiao. As a result, she prepared two research paper submissions: one measuring various design choices for the embedding technology in program domain, and the second on an advanced neural network targeting high-accuracy application programming interface (API) recommendations.
Her research proposal, “Multi-location Cryptographic Code Repair with Neural Network Methodologies," was also accepted to the doctoral symposium at the Association for Computing Machinery Joint European Software Engineering Conference and Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering this summer.
"This kind of fellowship also gives me a strong feeling that I’m doing a good job and makes me more comfortable that I can be a good researcher. This is very important to a young researcher like me.”
Xiao is a member of the Yao Group, a human-centric machine intelligence lab led by Daphne Yao, who also serves as her advisor. The lab's research thrusts include software vulnerability screening, enterprise data loss prevention, high-precision anomaly detection; machine learning technologies in healthcare, and patient-oriented digital health.
The graduate fellowships Lavender has created extend a history of accomplishment, generosity, and engagement that has already made a big impact on the Department of Computer Science.
Lavender was named the department’s Distinguished Alumnus in 2010, has served on the department’s advisory board, and has given generously toward co-endowing an excellence in diversity fund named for former Department Head Barbara Ryder.
In 2014, Lavender was inducted into the College of Engineering Academy of Engineering Excellence, an elite group of alumni who have distinguished themselves professionally as leaders.