Siebel Foundation names inaugural group of UChicago computer science scholars

The University of Chicago’s Department of Computer Science joined a select group of international programs as three master’s students studying computation and public policy were honored by the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation.

Hannes Koenig, Joan Wang and Tommy (Leping) Yu—second-year students in the Computational Analysis and Public Policy master’s program, or MS-CAPP, offered jointly by the Department of Computer Science and the Harris School of Public Policy—were named 2018 Siebel Scholars. They will each receive $35,000 from the Siebel Foundation for their final year of study and join a community of 1,100 current and former Siebel Scholars.

The three students are the first from a UChicago computer science program to be selected by the Siebel Foundation, which chooses students from an elite group of graduate programs in business, computer science, bioengineering and energy science. Other computer science departments in the Siebel program include Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Stanford and California Berkeley. Previous UChicago Siebel Scholars have been students from the Booth School of Business.

“We are proud that the Siebel Foundation has included University of Chicago Computer Science among the graduate programs it supports through these generous awards,” said Michael Franklin, the Liew Family Chair of Computer Science at UChicago. “These excellent students and the MS-CAPP program represent the expanding role of computing and data science at the University, pursuing new opportunities at the intersection of technology, scholarship and society.”

In future years, UChicago CS Siebel Scholars will be selected from across the department’s programs, including the Masters Program in Computer Science and the Joint MBA/MPCS program with Chicago Booth. But the first three Siebel Scholars hail from the MS-CAPP program, a two-year program that builds foundational knowledge in computer science, statistics and public policy analysis. Additionally, each student exercised and expanded their growing skillset through assistantships, volunteer work and summer internships.

“Joan, Hannes and Tommy are emblematic of the MS-CAPP degree, having developed the insight to recognize and the technical skills to tackle the most salient issues of the day,” said Alex Engler, MS-CAPP program director and lecturer. “Their passion for civic service, paired with their incisive computational thinking, make them uniquely poised for leadership in the 21st century.”

Koenig, a student from Germany with a background in online marketing, was attracted to this area of study after hearing a talk on predictive analytics for city services by Brett Goldstein, senior fellow in urban science at the Harris School. While pursuing his master’s degree, he worked with the Center for Data Science and Public Policy and the Chicago Department of Public Health on a project that uses data to improve clinic retention of HIV-positive patients.

After studying economics and operations research as an undergraduate and working as a business analyst, Wang decided she was more interested in applying data analysis to evidence-based public policy. Through MS-CAPP, she has acquired technical skills in programming and machine learning, which she put to use in a summer internship with the Urban Institute, studying whether physical segregation also occurs in digital spaces.

Yu studied international business and finance as an undergraduate at the University of Hong Kong, but sought a shift to public policy and work in the developing world. MS-CAPP has provided him with opportunities to learn new data science skills and apply them to real datasets from social good organizations and government agencies. In one project, he built a machine-learning pipeline for optimizing toilet waste collection in Kenya, building upon prior experience with a team of volunteers in Ghana that gave trainings in latrine construction.

“Hannes, Joan and Tommy are incredibly smart and talented students,” said Anne Rogers, associate professor and faculty co-director for MS-CAPP, and director of the master’s programs in Computer Science. “MS-CAPP has helped them develop the ability to harness complex computational tools in service of addressing critical societal problems.”