Volume 10, Number 1, 2001

Mitchell Scholar to pursue studies at 'MIT' of Ireland

The U.S.-Ireland Alliance has awarded UD senior Matthew Huenerfauth of Springfield, Pa., a 2001 Mitchell Scholarship to study and conduct research at the University College of Dublin (UCD) for a year, starting in October. The prestigious scholarship program, now in its second year, is a direct result of the U.S. role in securing a peace accord between the British government and the Republic of Ireland.

Huenerfauth, AS 2001, AS 2001M, also was offered a three-year British Marshall Scholarship that he declined in order to accept the Mitchell award, and he was named to USA Today's 12th annual 2001 All-USA College Academic First Team.

Graduating in May with bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science, Huenerfauth has focused his academic career on natural language processing and artificial intelligence. His 4.0 grade point average ranks him at the top of the 2001 graduating class of 4,569 students.

Huenerfauth says he accepted the Mitchell award because it's a one-year program with a generous "living" stipend coupled with a separate travel allowance that will enable him to see Europe while he studies at UCD, the "MIT of Ireland." He didn't want to wait three years to begin his doctoral studies in the U.S. and has already started applying to schools here.

But, Huenerfauth has a more personal reason for accepting the Mitchell. "I'm one-quarter Irish, and my uncle's wife, Ann, grew up in Ireland. She's told me all about it, and I have a list of people to visit while I'm there," he says. His family ties have made him more aware of the problems between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. "I'd like to see peace over there," he says. The Mitchell Scholarship program was created for that purpose.

The U.S.-Ireland Alliance was formed in 1998 to help cement and enhance relations among the U.S., Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in order to reinforce the peace process. The scholarships are named in honor of former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, who chaired the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland after he retired from the Senate in 1995. In 1998, under Mitchell's leadership, the governments of England and Ireland reached an historic accord, ending decades of conflict. Mitchell's work bringing about the peace accord earned him worldwide praise and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Mitchell scholars receive an $11,000 stipend, tuition and board, an allotment for travel within Ireland, England and the rest of Europe and the opportunity to study or conduct research at institutions of higher learning with an emphasis on the seven universities in the Republic of Ireland and the two in Northern Ireland. Since the goal of the Mitchell Scholarship is to interest the next generation of American leaders in Ireland, students are encouraged to take part in social activities offered to them by members and friends of the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, something that especially interested Huenerfauth.

"We'll be socializing with members of the British and Irish governments, and each time they interact with someone from the U.S. it will reinforce our role in the peace process," he says. Huenerfauth says students have been offered a trip to Belfast and he intends to go.

The Mitchell Scholarship is offered to students who have shown "a record of intellectual distinction, leadership and extracurricular activity, along with the personal characteristics of honesty, integrity, fairness and unselfish service to others," all characteristics that Huenerfauth's professors say they see in him.

He excelled academically throughout his high school and college career while fully participating in extracurricular activities.

He was valedictorian when he graduated from Devon Preparatory School in Pennsylvania, scored 1,600 on his SATs and won National Merit and National Advanced Placement scholarships.

A member of the Honors Program at UD, Huenerfauth received a Eugene du Pont Memorial Distinguished Scholarship, providing him with full tuition, room, board, fees and books. His honors at UD have included being named an Alison Scholar, the computer and information sciences department's outstanding sophomore for 1999 and outstanding junior for 2000, the Alumni Book Award from the College of Arts and Science and a first-year honors certificate. This academic year, he won honorable mention in national competition for the Computing Research Association's 2001 Outstanding Undergraduate Awards competition.

In 1999, he acted as teaching assistant and research coordinator for the Pennsylvania Governor's School of Excellence for the Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. He's also designed and acts as webmaster for the UD Honors [http://www.udel.edu/honors/] and Pathways [http://www.udel.edu/pathways/] Programs' web sites.

Sandra Carberry, professor of computer and information sciences, who has been Huenerfauth's adviser since his freshman year, says, "Matt has been outstanding in his quest for academic enrichment." She describes him as "a brilliant student" who "unlike many students with outstanding academic credentials...can relate well to all students and is very sensitive to individual concerns."

Carberry says he has never been satisfied just with outstanding performance in the classroom but has "sought other opportunities to increase his knowledge and abilities."

One way he did that was to work as a program manager intern for the Microsoft Corp. in its natural language group during the summer of 2000. He performed research and prepared specifications for new Microsoft software that uses natural language technology.

Carberry also cites the impressive work Huenerfauth has done as Kathleen McCoy's teaching aide and assistant in UD's Artificial Intelligence/Natural Language Processing Laboratory.

McCoy, professor of computer and information sciences, whose research focuses on natural language generation or making computers talk, can't say enough good things about her student.

She has nothing but praise for the work he's done on a project called ICICLE, (interactive computer identification and correction of language errors). It's a program designed for the deaf who speak in American Sign Language (ASL). ICICLE is a sophisticated grammar checker and tutorial that would help the deaf, who think in ASL, learn how to translate ASL to standard English.

"Matt has been an integral member of the ICICLE research team for several years. He has written language that increased the program's ability to recognize a wider variety of words, supported the work of other researchers and that allowed easier dissection of each part of a sentence. But, more importantly," McCoy says, "all of it was done in a quiet professional fashion with little supervision. Matt is quick to understand what is needed and simply goes and learns what he needs to deliver it."

As a junior, Huenerfauth helped McCoy teach an honors introductory computer science course, and even though TAs are usually graduate students, she says he was exceptional in the way he interacted with her students and the leadership role he took in organizing student labs.

McCoy says she believes Huenerfauth is a gifted leader able to find, on his own, the information needed to get from one point to another in his research and in life. She says he took a leadership role in the research lab because he understood how to integrate the separate parts of ICICLE to understand the total system.

McCoy says, "I expect that his contributions have only begun."

Ultimately, Huenerfauth says, he would like to program computers so that "they speak our language instead of us having to speak theirs."

In addition to his academic achievements, Huenerfauth chairs the Senior Fellow Program, has been the UD representative to the National Association of Campus Activities, regional and national conferences treasurer of the UD chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa, competed in the Association for Computing Machinery's programming competition team--taking third place in the regionals--and was a Spirit Ambassador for two years. He also sings and acts and helped found the a capella group Vocal Point.

In addition to a full course load in his senior year, he's begun learning Gaelic so that when he meets his relatives in Ireland, he won't mispronounce their names.

"I want to try everything along the way," Huenerfauth says.

--Barbara Garrison