Leena Mathur was sheltering in place in her hometown in Northern California last month when she received an email to tell her she had won the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship.
She immediately shared the news with her mom, then emailed a thank you note to her mentors, Computer Science Professor Maja Matarić, Associate Professor of Linguistics Khalil Iskarous and Michael Shindler of the University of California, Irvine.
“After all that excitement, it was back to classes on Zoom,” said Mathur.
It’s the same determined attitude that Mathur has demonstrated throughout her time at USC, where she is pursuing a triple major in computer science, linguistics and cognitive science. She says she chose her combination of majors so she could better undertake research in human-centered artificial intelligence (AI).
“My undergraduate research tackles interdisciplinary problems across diverse domains, developing machine learning techniques that enhance individual and societal well-being,” said Mathur, a junior.
“To support human well-being, AI systems must have the ability to sense, perceive, interpret, and respond to human behaviors and emotions. That’s why I’m passionate about conducting research in human-centered AI.”
Mathur is a recipient of the USC Presidential Scholarship and a three-time recipient of the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship.
She is also the incoming president of CAIS++, the student branch of USC’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society, where she has led outreach efforts and served as VP of Projects. In CAIS++, student teams collaborate with professors, startups and nonprofits to tackle pressing societal problems using machine learning.
Mathur said the Goldwater Scholarship will help her achieve her goal of earning a Ph.D. in computer science before pursuing a research career as a university professor.
Mathur’s research is already making a difference in the world.
Since her first weeks as a USC freshman in 2017, Mathur has conducted research in the lab of Maja Matarić, the Chan Soon-Shiong Chair and Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Pediatrics. There, she joined a team developing socially-assistive robotic tutors for children with autism spectrum disorders.
In the past year, she has been working on independent research towards her undergraduate thesis, advised by Matarić, developing machine learning and deep learning approaches that enable machines to automatically detect human behaviors and emotions during communication.
Mathur is also part of a group of CAIS++ students working with USC Dornsife Professor Khalil Iskarous on deep learning and speech processing algorithms to preserve endangered languages, specifically Ladin, an endangered language from the Italian Alps.
Last summer, she worked in the Distributed Information Systems Lab at the School of Computer Science at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, where she developed deep learning approaches for detecting and recognizing faces in low-quality videos. Her research contributed towards a system to help European Red Cross Societies find missing refugees in online video streams, prompted by family separations during Europe’s refugee crisis.
In addition to her leadership roles in CAIS++, Mathur serves in USC residential life as a resident assistant and has been an undergraduate teaching assistant in the Computer Science Department.
Mathur believes strongly in outreach and mentorship. She has served as a mentor for freshmen in USC’s Women in Engineering Mentorship program, as a judge for all-female hackathon AthenaHacks, and has led machine-learning workshops for USC’s Women in Engineering and Women in Computing clubs.
In spring 2019, she designed and taught an eight-week programming class for third-graders at a Los Angeles public school. She has also demonstrated robots to students at Robotics Family Nights in Pasadena, CA, and USC’s Native American College Exploration Day.
The scholarship honoring Sen. Barry Goldwater was created to encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of mathematics, natural sciences and engineering. Since its first award in 1989, the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation has bestowed 8,628 scholarships worth more than $68 million. This year, scholarship recipients were selected from a field of more than 5,000 college sophomores and juniors who were nominated by 461 academic institutions nationwide.