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Former Stehlik Scholars: Where Are They Now?

Aisha Rashid (DC 2019)Thursday, March 21, 2019

Rachel Holladay (above), Ananya Kumar and Eric Zhu were some of the first recipients of the Mark Stehlik SCS Alumni Undergraduate Impact Scholarship. Here's a look at what they're doing now.

Rachel Holladay (CS 2017), Ananya Kumar (CS 2017) and Eric Zhu (CS 2018) were a few of the earliest recipients of the Mark Stehlik SCS Alumni Undergraduate Impact Scholarship. The award — now in its fourth year — recognizes undergraduate students for their commitment and dedication to the field of computer science both in and beyond the classroom.

While receiving the scholarship was an incredible milestone for these three alumni, their pursuits to advance their interests in computer science didn't stop at CMU. Well after their time in SCS, they're still making groundbreaking strides in research, industry and academia.

Rachel Holladay

Holladay started her CMU journey in 2013. Along with researching human-robot interaction and motion planning in the Personal Robotics Lab, she also dedicated her time to SCS student organizations, from mentoring an all-girls, high school FIRST Robotics team, the Girls of Steel, to being an active member in SCS4All, Women @ SCS and SCS Day.

A week before her final exams her senior year, Holladay remembers being called into an urgent meeting. Initially thinking she was in trouble, she learned that three of her faculty mentors had nominated her for the Stehlik Scholarship. "To find out that the faculty you know and work with would put you up for [the scholarship] was very humbling," Holladay said. "Several of those faculty went on to graciously write me letters of recommendation for graduate school or graduate fellowships."

Now in the second year of her Ph.D. in computer science at MIT, Holladay is researching the intersection of robotic manipulation and motion planning. She primarily works on developing algorithms that enable robots to perform dexterous manipulation tasks. She also served as the co-president of the Graduate Women in Course 6 (GW6), a student group that focuses on the personal and professional development of graduate women in the electrical engineering and computer science program at MIT.

Ananya Kumar

Ananya Kumar

Kumar also began his CMU career in 2013, and worked with SCS faculty on research topics ranging from computational geometry to programming language theory. He also served as a teaching assistant for Great Ideas in Theoretical Computer Science, was an active member of CMU's debate team, and worked at various companies including DeepMind, Uber, Google Cloud and Expii.

"I was definitely influenced by opportunities at CMU to pursue research," Kumar said. "When I came to CMU, I thought I'd do a software engineering job. My dream would've been to work at Google." The Stehlik Scholarship, which Kumar received in 2016, helped him explore the world of research opportunities further. "The grant was used for conferences," he said. "Up until that point, I was working hard on research but didn't have anything amazing to show for it. It was really nice that the professors I was working with thought I was doing an amazing job and nominated me for the award."

Today, Kumar is working toward a Ph.D. in machine learning at Stanford University, with a main technical focus in robust machine learning. He owes his appreciation for machine learning to SCS faculty, claiming that their work and accomplishments inspired him to pursue a specialization in the field.

Eric Zhu

Eric Zhu

Zhu, who studied computer science and machine learning, immersed himself in the SCS community at CMU and its diverse opportunities for research and work. While on campus, he participated in activities that ranged from being a resident advisor for Morewood E-tower to serving as the academic affairs chair of CMU's Undergraduate Student Senate. But Zhu recalls that his favorite opportunity at CMU was working on his senior thesis, which focused on natural-language processing (NLP). "I got to combine my interests in language with music, by working on taking machine learning models designed to handle language, and seeing how to make them more suited to music," he said. "Kind of a dream come true."

"There are so many stellar SCS students, and the list of prior Stehlik Scholarship recipients really humbles me," Zhu said. "Without the award, I was heavily considering graduating early for financial pressures, but I was set on staying after receiving the award. That let me finally experience TA-ing a course my senior spring and finish my senior thesis, and I also got so much more time with my friends. Since then, we've all dispersed across the country and the world, which makes that final semester so much more sentimental to me."

Zhu now lives in New York City, where he works on language understanding for Google Assistant, Google's artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistance app.

These three former scholars attribute much of their success to the SCS faculty, staff and students who helped them cultivate their interests and push boundaries in research and academia during their time at CMU.

"Stop almost any new CMU grad on the street, and they'll say things work out," Zhu said. "It's important to take the time when your blinders aren't aimed directly at one specific problem to broaden your scope, either academically, socially or even in just the ways you think about who you are. I'm super nostalgic about college now, but take it from an alum: it really is a special and irreplaceable time."

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