Amal Nanavati Wins Fulbright Award, Inaugural K&L Gates Prize

Monday, May 14, 2018 - by Byron Spice

Graduating senior Amal Nanavati, a double major in computer science and global studies, has received both the Fulbright Award and the inaugural K&L Gates Prize.

Amal Nanavati, a double major in computer science and global studies in the Class of 2018, has received two prestigious prizes — the Fulbright Award and the inaugural K&L Gates Prize.

The Fulbright Award, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, offers new and recent graduates research, study and teaching opportunities in more than 140 countries. Nanavati is one of five Carnegie Mellon University recipients this year.

Nanavati will conduct research in human-robot interaction under the supervision of Professor Takayuki Kanda at Kyoto University. His research will investigate how robots can learn to work and communicate with humans in smooth, natural ways by observing human-to-human interactions. He plans to continue human-robot interaction research as he pursues a Ph.D. at the University of Washington the following year.

The $5,000 Gates Prize, supported by the K&L Gates Endowment for Ethics and Computational Technologies, is being presented for the first time this year. The prize recognizes a graduating senior who has "best inspired his fellow students at the university to a love of learning through a combination of intellect, high scholarly achievement, engagement with others and character."

He will receive the prize during the School of Computer Science diploma ceremony this Sunday.

Nanavati, of Fremont, Calif., said that growing up in Silicon Valley instilled in him the conviction that technology leads to solutions, which lead to human progress. He dreamed of joining a startup and building apps that change the world. After his first year at CMU, he traveled to Bengaluru, India, as part of a team from TechBridgeWorld, then a Robotics Institute lab that developed technologies for underserved communities around the world. He and his fellow team members worked with schools for blind and deaf children, developing a device to teach students how to write in Braille, software to help teachers document their local sign language, and a collection of games to help students who are deaf understand and visualize their voices during speech therapy class.

"That 2015 trip to Bengaluru rattled my views about technology," he said, motivating him to study how history and social structures perpetuate inequalities worldwide. "I have abandoned my naive faith that 'technology leads to human progress' and am committed to utilizing technology, together with an understanding of social context, to assist the underserved," he added.

At CMU, he involved himself in research with Aaron Steinfeld, associate research professor of robotics, using robots to help blind travelers navigate indoor spaces. He co-founded and led Teknowledge, an educational outreach group that teaches computer science at under-resourced public schools in Pittsburgh. He returned to Bengaluru last year to enhance the speech-therapy games developed during his first visit.

"Overall, engaging in community service and outreach during my time at CMU taught me the importance of immersing myself in a community to discover their contexts, needs and perspectives," he said. "I have also learned that tacking any real-world problem requires interdisciplinary perspectives. Finally, outreach at CMU taught me that sustainability, both for technological tools and for organizations, is key. I intend to carry these lessons with me as I continue to pursue community-centric research and outreach in my future academic career."

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