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Graduate student awarded IBM PhD Fellowship

Syrine Belakaria

Washington State University computer science doctoral candidate Syrine Belakaria is one of 16 students selected from around the world to receive the 2021 IBM Research PhD Fellowship.

The highly competitive fellowship recognizes and supports exceptional PhD students who are working on promising and disruptive technologies, according to the IBM website. The two-year fellowship provides funding as well as mentorship with an IBM researcher in which students collaborate on a research or technology project.

“As a PhD student, it is exciting to know that the research I am working on has potential for scientific impact as recognized by the external scientific community, and in this case, the IBM research institution,” Belakaria said. “This motivates me to continue with confidence in my research work.”

Belakaria is investigating fundamental artificial intelligence and machine learning research problems and their application to real-world problems in engineering and scientific domains. Working under the supervision of Jana Doppa, George and Joan Berry Chair Associate Professor in WSU’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, her work is focused on developing general-purpose learning and reasoning computer algorithms to support engineers and scientists in their efforts to optimize the way they conduct complex experiments.

“The unifying theme of my research is to develop novel machine learning-driven methods for adaptive experiment design in science and engineering domains where there is a need to select expensive experiments to optimize complex design spaces under resource budget,” she said. “My research is motivated by the real challenges faced by scientists and engineers.”

Belakaria believes that machine learning has an important role to play in accelerating the scientific discovery process, helping to solving pressing problems, and contributing to science.

“How can we accelerate the design of vaccines, drugs, and sustainable materials?” she said. “It is critical to build bridges through interdisciplinary collaborations to create impactful machine learning-based solutions.”

Originally from Tunisia, Belakaria received her undergraduate degree in engineering before coming to the U.S. in 2017 and receiving a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Idaho. Since coming to WSU in 2018, she has received the outstanding teaching assistant in computer science award; was a finalist for Open Philanthropy AI fellowship (2020) and Microsoft Research fellowship (2021); and received a top reviewer award from the International Conference on Machine Learning (2020). She has published several journal and conference papers and presented her research at top-tier machine learning and artificial intelligence conferences. She is also involved in supporting the participation of women and underrepresented groups in engineering and computing fields and helping to organize workshops at two major conferences.

Belakaria said that working in her research group with a healthy and supportive work environment has been crucial for her success. A significant part of her research work for which she received recognition has happened during the pandemic.

“I believe that without my supervisor’s constant support and my lab mates’ encouragement and help, I would not have been able to succeed in getting this fellowship,” she said. “Without WSU’s management of the student resources and the continuous efforts of my supervisor to keep the spirit of our lab up, I would not have been able to keep up with the pace required to remain productive to produce strong research results.”

“Syrine has a deep commitment to perform high-impact research and has the right skills and attitude to execute her chosen research program,” Doppa said. “Based on her extremely promising start, I have no doubt that she will become a star machine learning researcher and a leading computer scientist in the near future towards her goal of becoming a professor at a strong research university.”

“We are so proud of Syrine’s significant accomplishment in receiving this highly selective fellowship,” said Partha Pande, director of the School of EECS. “She is a top graduate student in our expanding program, and she along with her colleagues are doing critically important research that is of interest to industries in our state and beyond.  We look forward to following her bright future and promising research career.”

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