The 2021 recipients of the Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research

Monday, May 31, 2021

Nicholas Vadivelu, a Computer Science and Statistics double major and Spencer Whitehead a Pure Mathematics major are the recipients of the prestigious Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research. Professor Ming Li and his family created this award in honour and memory of his late wife, Jessie Wenhui Zou. With this award, the family wishes to support research activities at the undergraduate level within the Faculty of Mathematics to carry on Jessie’s passion for education. The spirit of this award is to acknowledge research achieved by students in their final year of any program within the Faculty of Mathematics. An award, valued at $1,000, is presented annually to an undergraduate that has demonstrated excellence in research and has been nominated by a faculty member who has supervised that research.

Nicholas Vadivelu’s, excellence in research spans across several projects, most notable is his contribution to increasing the speed of machine-learning algorithms while conducting research with the Cheriton School of Computer Science Assistant Professor Gautam Kamath.

Nicholas and Professor Kamath (along with Waterloo student Pranav Subramani), completed research that focused on differentially private machine learning. Differential privacy is a rigorous notion of data privacy, which limits the effect of adding or removing a user’s data from a dataset. They collaborated to apply the JAX framework, that supports low-level features such as vectorized mappings and just in time compilation effectively removing the overhead of privacy.

"It felt like we were on the same wavelength, which is an exceptional experience to have with someone at the undergraduate level," said Professor Kamath, describing the collaboration with Nicholas.

From that research, Nicholas, co-authored the paper, ‘Enabling Fast Differentially Private SGD via Just-in-Time Compilation and Vectorization’, which appeared at the Workshop on Privacy-Preserving Machine Learning at NeurIPS ’20.

Read more about Nicholas’ research accomplishments.

Spencer Whitehead, a top student in the Pure Math program was nominated by his research supervisor Associate Professor Matthew Satriano. Professor Satriano first met Spencer as his professor in PMath 347 in 2018. In class, Spencer was never one who stole the show, rather he sat back ready to answer the question when no one else knew the answer. Spencer further impressed his professor by sharing alternate and slicker solutions to homework problems.

Professor Satriano commented about Spencer, “he is independent, insightful, and mathematically mature beyond his years; I felt as if I was working with a collaborator rather than a student."

To get a sense of what Spencer’s research accomplished, it took a big step forward on Popov’s question, answering it for irreducible representations of simple Lie groups. Throughout the research process, Spencer took a leading role, both in terms of theoretical and computational methods. Using his computational wizardry, Spencer was able to reduce numerous exceptional cases down to only two. Furthermore, Spencer single-handedly took care of two of the infinite families of Lie groups as well as the exceptional cases, which is especially notable as the exceptional Lie groups tend to be the most difficult to work with.

This research led Spencer to co-author the paper ‘On a smoothness characterization for good moduli spaces’ with Dan Edidin and Professor Satriano. A preprint of the paper has been submitted to the arxiv, and is undergoing review by a journal.

Read more about Spencer's research accomplishments.