On the home stretch, graduate students say fellowships made all the difference
Earlier this year, alumnus and philanthropist Greg Lavender M.S. ’88, Ph.D. ’93 endowed the first two Ph.D. fellowships in Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science to honor his academic mentors, one named for Emeritus Professor of Computer Science Richard Nance and the other for Professor of Computer Science Dennis Kafura, both of whom served as former department heads.
The fellowships were created to support students in the homestretch of their Ph.D. studies as they strive to complete their dissertations. The first two recipients — computer science graduate students Kobla Setor Zilevu and Ya Xiao — are both in the last year of their graduate programs, with plans to graduate in May 2022.
“The idea is that when you reach the point where you need to be 100 percent focused on your research, that’s when unfettered financial assistance really matters,” Lavender said. “It’s when you need to focus and double down, and fellowships can help eliminate other distractions in life, like serving as a teaching assistant.”
Computer science department head Cal Ribbens could not agree more. “Fellowships enable high-achieving, high potential graduate students not to worry about their funding for an important chunk of time,” he said.
Meet Kobla Setor Zilevu
Kobla Setor Zilevu, the first recipient of the Dr. Richard E. Nance Graduate Fellowship in Computer Science, has been able to explore his passion for user experience (UX) research during his time at Virginia Tech, including an opportunity to design user-friendly interfaces for stroke survivors completing in-home therapy.
This was not the path Zilevu saw for himself when he was first applying to college in 2013. At the time, University of Southern California seemed like his clear choice. However, the Woodbridge, Virginia, resident had a life-changing moment when his father experienced a stroke, setting the course for Zilevu to attend college much closer to home.
Zilevu decided on Virginia Tech, with a determined focus to combine his passions for UX, health care, and stroke rehabilitation. Near the end of his undergraduate career, Zilevu’s professor Margaret Ellis told him he should meet one of her colleagues, Aisling Kelliher, who has served as co-director of the Interactive Neurorehabilitation Lab at Virginia Tech since 2015. “It was a beautiful process,” said Zilevu, who still has the notebook from their first meeting. While pursuing his master's of computer science, Zilevu joined Kelliher’s team as a UX researcher.
“Working with different stakeholders, whether that be the patient, therapist, or even our own internal stakeholders, is truly exciting and rewarding to me,” said Zilevu. “I love understanding why people do what they do, especially within the realm of stroke and implementing how we can make it better.”
The fellowship has enabled Zilevu to travel and work with colleagues at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago to advance his research at Virginia Tech. Zilevu said his heart dropped when he first visited the lab in Chicago, realizing it is the No. 1 ranked rehabilitation hospital in America. Zilevu was able to see the real-world application of the program he and his teammates developed at Virginia Tech to be used by real-world stroke survivors. "It was rewarding to see the work that we do is valued," he said.
Zilevu was able to work with different clinicians and therapists who tested the system with stroke survivors, providing valuable feedback and ratings that will allow the Virginia Tech team to make some adjustments before installing the system at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in January 2022.
As he was nearing the end of his master’s studies and starting an internship with Intel, Zilevu said, Kelliher encouraged him to pursue his doctorate and remain as a central member of the research lab team.
Zilevu has many people to thank for his experiences at Tech. He credits Kelliher for helping to further his important research and supporting his journey, including writing him a letter of recommendation for the weeklong Dissertation Institute, which Zilevu attended this past summer. He expresses appreciation not only for the financial assistance offered by Lavender's fellowship, but also for its intangible values.
"I am very excited because this fellowship represents accessibility — an important stepping stone that enables me to develop an impactful tool that can meet the needs of patients and therapists within this space," said Zilevu.
Meet Ya Xiao
Ya Xiao, the first recipient of the Dr. Dennis G. Kafura Graduate Fellowship in Computer Science, is a fourth-year computer science Ph.D. student with a passion for cybersecurity research. She began her doctoral studies in 2017. Prior to arriving at Virginia Tech, Xiao earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications in China.
Xiao is a member of the Yao Group, a human-centric machine intelligence lab led by computer science professor Daphne Yao, who also serves as Xiao’s advisor. The lab's research priorities include software vulnerability screening, enterprise data loss prevention, high-precision anomaly detection, machine learning technologies in healthcare, and patient-oriented digital health.
In the summer of 2019, Xiao had a special opportunity to intern at Oracle Labs in Australia, where she and her team successfully developed a new functionality capable of detecting cryptographic vulnerabilities in Oracle’s static code analysis tool Parfait. This research experience dovetails into her current work on CryptoGuard, a precise static analyzer for screening large-scale codebases for vulnerability detection, in the Yao Group.
“I am very proud of Ya for receiving the inaugural Dr. Dennis G. Kafura Graduate Fellowship,” said Yao. “This fellowship is a timely recognition for her research innovations and hard work, which will inspire Virginia Tech computer science students for years to come.”
As Xiao prepares for the final home sprint, she said the fellowship made all the difference this summer as she was able to fully dedicate it to research. Her research paper, “Multi-location Cryptographic Code Repair with Neural Network Methodologies," was accepted and presented as part of the doctoral symposium at the Association for Computing Machinery Joint European Software Engineering Conference and Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering this summer.
This internationally renowned forum brings together researchers, practitioners, and educators to present and discuss the most recent innovations, trends, experiences, and challenges in the field of software engineering.
In addition to her recognition from external colleagues, Xiao said her fellowship has boosted her confidence in the world of research. "This kind of fellowship also gives me a strong feeling that I’m doing a good job and makes me more comfortable that I can be a good researcher. This is very important to a young researcher like me,” said Xiao.
Promoting Continued Excellence
The graduate fellowships created by Lavender extend a history of accomplishment, generosity, and engagement that has already made a big impact on the Department of Computer Science.
Lavender, chief technology officer and general manager of the software and advanced technology group at Intel Corporation, was named the department’s Distinguished Alumnus in 2010. He has served on the department’s advisory board and has given generously toward co-endowing an undergraduate excellence fund named for former Department Head Barbara Ryder.
In 2014, Lavender was inducted into the College of Engineering Academy of Engineering Excellence, an elite group of alumni who have distinguished themselves professionally as leaders.