July 14, 2020

Caltech’s Kortschak Scholars Program Builds a New Community

Established by businessman Walter Kortschak (MS ’82) in 2017, the program gives students from the computing and mathematical sciences the freedom to explore bold new ideas.

The region of Darfur in Sudan has been afflicted by civil war and genocide for nearly two decades, but because the borders are closed, humanitarian workers cannot visit to see what is happening on the ground. In her previous work with the firm Element AI, Laure Delisle, who is coming to Caltech as a graduate student this fall, worked to apply machine learning techniques to identify and classify exactly what appears in the low-resolution, poorly labeled satellite images of Darfur that are available. “I want to give NGOs and humanitarian groups the ability to leverage AI to alleviate suffering, reduce discrimination, and combat human rights violations,” she says.


At Caltech, Delisle plans to continue her research into machine learning as one of five new members of the Kortschak Scholars program, an endowment-funded initiative for incoming Caltech computing and mathematical science PhD students that businessman and Caltech trustee Walter Kortschak (MS ’82) established in 2017. The endowment offers students two years of support to allow our scholars to explore the field’s cutting edge. “The program will allow our scholars to be unconstrained in their pursuit of new areas of research in computer science, possibly in a highly interdisciplinary and unexplored area,” Kortschak said at the program’s outset.

“The program will allow our scholars to be unconstrained in their pursuit of new areas of research in computer science, possibly in a highly interdisciplinary and unexplored area.”
- Walter Kortschak (MS ’82)

Adam Wierman, a professor of computing and mathematical sciences at Caltech, leads the Kortschak program, which has grown by several students each year into a community of 16 scholars. “I think this area is crucial to Caltech, looking at the interaction of autonomy and machine learning and AI,” Wierman says. “The program also focuses on quantum and quantum encryption. These are distinctive Caltech opportunities: the interface of AI with other disciplines.”


This year, the group will add five new members. Incoming Kortschak Scholar Zihui Wu, for instance, focuses on computational imaging: the use of optimization algorithms to reconstruct objects in imaging. Eitan Levin worked at Princeton on algorithms that optimize the effectiveness of cryo-electron microscopy, a technique to determine the high-resolution structure of biomolecules. Yiheng Lin develops algorithms related to online learning, while Cameron Voloshin (BS ’17) focuses on extrapolating the performance of one AI system based on data generated from another; for example, using historical data from an AI-run traffic grid to make sure an improved AI-run system will further reduce the potential for accidents.


These new graduate students will join 11 current and former Kortschak Scholars making discoveries in robotic vision, quantum computing, and autonomous systems. They include Jennifer Sun, who works to better understand the social behaviors of mice based on videos of their interactions. Sun’s interdisciplinary work with neurobiologists has helped her to build a large data set about these behaviors and may help to explain their neurological underpinnings.  


Sun’s colleague Noel Csomay-Shanklin works in the lab of Aaron Ames, Bren Professor of Mechanical and Civil Engineering and Control and Dynamical Systems, trying to help bipedal robots learn to walk in the bumpy, unpredictable world. A recent project taught a four-legged robot to walk on varying slopes by separating its front and back legs into separate two-leg units that could adapt to terrain changes on their own.


And then there is Kortschak Scholar Alexander Poremba, who focuses on the kinds of cryptography questions that only quantum information techniques can help answer. His current research focus is on quantum copy protection of software and simple programs such as password authentication. Billions of dollars are lost in intellectual property due to theft or piracy every year, he says. “Quantum computation offers a striking solution to this problem. Unlike conventional bits in digital computers, quantum states cannot, in general, be copied.”


Wierman says the Kortschak Scholars program provides a crucial recruitment tool for bringing sought-after top AI and computer science graduate students to Caltech. In addition to the two years of funding for each scholar, Walter Kortschak has committed to offering the scholars valuable networking opportunities via internships and connections with some of the biggest companies in tech. “An important element of our program is to provide each of our Kortschak Scholar cohorts with unmatched opportunities to meet with thought leaders in Silicon Valley and around the country every year, to start building the connective tissue and contacts so critical early in a scholar’s career,” Kortschak said.


Says Delisle, “The scholarship meant that I could push my research into more interdisciplinary domains or directions. What’s also great is the fact that it comes with a cohort and there’s this social aspect to it.”


That was by design, Wierman says. “We are growing a very interesting, creative, and productive community in which our Kortschak alumni can remain engaged and active. Our alumni come back for workshops and serve as mentors for the students who are still here so that this creates a community that extends beyond Caltech.”