NSF Fellowship Goes to UA Computer Science Alumna

Ekaterina Hristova Spriggs, who completed her undergraduate degree last year, has earned a grant that will provide $90,000 over a three-year period.
April 23, 2008
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The UA's computer science department emphasizes high-quality research and instruction. The department has offered master’s and doctoral degrees since its founding in 1973.


The undergraduate degree program was added in 1989. The department currently has 13 graduate faculty, four senior lecturers, three academic advisers, six technical and scientific support staff and seven administrative staff.


The graduate program has approximately 60 students seeking master's degrees and 35 seeking doctorates. The undergraduate program has approximately 200 majors and 250 first-year pre-majors. The department has nine faculty members involved with the iPlant Collaborative, the $50 million five-year grant from NSF to develop a cyber infrastructure for solving grand challenge problems in plant sciences.

Ekaterina "Kate" Spriggs
Ekaterina "Kate" Spriggs

Ekaterina "Kate" Hristova Spriggs, a University of Arizona graduate now working as a research assistant for her alma mater, has been awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

The fellowship comes with $30,000 each year for up to three years. The funds will allow Spriggs to study artificial intelligence, particuarly in computers vision and their ability to detect human voices.

“This guarantees funding for the first three years of research when it is most important,” said Spriggs, a former Honors College student who graduated from the UA with a computer science degree in 2007.

"One of the biggest benefits is that I will be able to more or less choose the advisers I would like to work with because funding is not the issue," Spriggs said.

"The other thing is that it is prestigious," she added. "People know that it's really hard to receive the scholarship. I think it shows that the student has worked really hard as an undergraduate, has done a lot of research and outreach."

Spriggs, who has spent the year since her graduation conducting research at the UA, will leave for Carnegie Mellon University this fall to complete her doctoral degree in computer science.

Currently, she is conducting research at the UA that she began while an undergraduate. Her research involves creating computer models to identify fungi. She is working on the project with Kobus Barnard, an assistant professor of computer science, and plant pathology associate professor Barry Pryor, who is also a member of the BIO5 Institute.

"It doesn't sound very exciting when you say fungi, but this will help scientists to focus on the science rather than spend hours and hours under the microscope trying to identify fungi," she said.

She is also working with Emily Butler, an assistant professor in the John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, on a project analyzing human behavior. The researchers are trying to predict a person's emotional state based on behavior, facial expressions, blood pressure and other things.

Spriggs is also organizing a summer camp for middle school students focused on integrating science and computation. The camp, which will be offered for students at the UA-affiliated Wildcat School, will be held in June.

"Improving science and education is my ultimate goal, and I hope that during my graduate studies I will gain the experience and expertise to achieve this goal," Spriggs said.

NSF provides the fellowship to master's and doctoral degree students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields to "ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and to reinforce its diversity," according to the NSF Web site.

The award goes to "outstanding graduate students" who are expected to become leaders in their respective research fields. They will be "crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation's technological infrastructure and national security as well as contributing to the economic well-being of society at large," the NSF also noted.

Nobel Prize winners David Politzer and Frank Wilczek, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and numerous Ivy League and top research university-educated students and faculty are among those who have received the NSF fellowship in the past.

The award will allow Spriggs to begin her graduate research this fall, focusing on understanding ways that computers and humans can interact in a learning environment.

Her goal is to create human-computer processes that keep students engaged in learning, identify areas in which they need tutoring and keep them excited about science and math.

“What I would like to do eventually is to contribute to the educational system and create automated tutors,” Spriggs said.

Automated, or "intelligent," tutors can be taught to recognize behaviors and facial expressions that indicate when a student is having difficulty learning a subject. Teachers can then use this information to create strategies to help students master the material.

Spriggs has long been a champion of education for underserved children.

Concerned that some of the Boys and Girls Club youth she worked with were seemingly convinced that they had no chance of making it to college, Spriggs set out to consolidate resources for them and others.

Using Wiki software, Spriggs developed the Web site "All for Education." With help from the UA's College of Science and College of Education, among others, she filled the site with easy-to-access information to inform families of college-bound youth about scholarships, internships and summer programs. The site also has instructional materials for teachers and volunteers.

She now has a volunteer working on the Web site and is in the process of applying for tax-exemp status and hopes to expand the site to more national audiences. "It does take some time, but I hope I'll have this coming up soon."