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Abstract blue, grey and pink halftone pattern with a centered Block I logo and navy Fiddler Innovation text. A navy rectangle contains the word Fellowship in white text.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications recognized 10 University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students for their outstanding accomplishments in various fields of academic research. 

The group received Fiddler Innovation Fellowship awards, which are part of a $2 million endowment from Jerry Fiddler and Melissa Alden to UIUC in support of student and faculty interdisciplinary research initiatives through the Illinois Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media (eDream) Institute at NCSA. The breadth of the student work included contributing to cutting-edge projects developing a campus chatbot, advising targeted humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees with a machine-learning geospatial approach and significantly cutting down traditional analysis costs and helping to measure soil health and carbon credits.

The awards affirm the outstanding achievements and interdisciplinary contributions to NCSA student programs Students Pushing Innovation (SPIN) and Design for America during the 2022-23 academic year.

Our students have consistently tackled many challenging issues, providing innovative solutions. They were willing to explore novel ideas, revisit and revise their approaches, and try again. Along the way, they not only impressed but also inspired their team members and mentors. The interdisciplinary contributions made by these students will serve as a foundation for the next cohort of students, propelling these advancements to new heights. We are delighted to help support these efforts through Fiddler Innovation Student Fellowships.

Olena Kindratenko, NCSA Senior Research Coordinator

Fellowship awardee Kastan Day joined NCSA’s Center for Artificial Intelligence Innovation in the spring of 2023 and became the leading developer in training an AI model to function as an academic teaching assistant. His contributions resulted in a production-quality chatbot platform that can be rapidly trained to serve as a teaching assistant or an intelligent, knowledgeable assistant on a specific topic.

The platform is currently in use in select UIUC Electrical and Computer Engineering courses as well as a technical documentation assistant for NCSA’s Delta supercomputing system, with additional uses being developed across campus.

SPIN intern Pooja Tetali was recognized with a Fiddler Innovation Fellowship for her work on “A Machine Learning and Geospatial Approach to Targeting Humanitarian Assistance Among Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” playing a pivotal role in processing the data and reviewing and testing the coding for the machine learning and geospatial analysis.

The impact of the research extended far beyond the classroom as findings from the project contributed to a working paper presented at the prestigious Economic Research Forum in Egypt, the foremost research network for economists in the Middle East, and were shared with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Tetali and her team’s work puts forth specific recommendations for a globally coordinated approach to accelerate the development of new frontier strategies in data science, which aim to enhance the targeting and distribution of humanitarian assistance amidst the challenges posed by increasing displacement and limited funding.

Chenhui Zhang was awarded the Fiddler Innovation Fellowship for the second year in a row, this time for his work on a new SPIN project, “Cross-scale Sensing and Deep Learning for Sustainable Agriculture.” Zhang aims to map important agroecosystem variables like crop nitrogen in a scalable way by synthesizing ground measurements, airborne hyperspectral images and satellite images.

Now a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Zhang harnessed machine-learning algorithms for three pivotal agroecosystem variables crucial to agricultural resilience and environmental sustainability.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunities and resources provided by NCSA and my mentors, Dr. Kaiyu Guan and Dr. Sheng Wang, for undergraduate students to explore a variety of interdisciplinary research topics,” Zhang said. “These explorations provided an important foundation for my Ph.D. research topics and are crucial for my current interests in AI and geospatial science. I would also like to thank Mr. Fiddler for graciously providing us with this opportunity to be recognized for our work, which motivated me to continue my exploration of my research.”

2023 Fiddler Innovation Fellowship Awardees

  • Pooja Tetali, SPIN
  • Chenhui Zhang, SPIN
  • Xiaojun Jia, SPIN
  • Zhiju Lu, SPIN
  • Evan Rafol, Design for America
  • Sara Kiel, Design for America
  • Claudia Robles, Design for America
  • Kaitlin Skurnak, Design for America
  • Kastan Day, NCSA Graduate student
  • Colter Wehmeier, Doctorate student in Art and Cultural Informatics at the School of Information Sciences
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