Carnegie Mellon students aren't just logging on to Facebook to post status updates. They're now winning prestigious 'Facebook Fellowships.' Only five finalists were chosen from several hundred applicants for Facebook's new program — and two are from Carnegie Mellon.
Mladen Kolar and Leslie John, two talented Ph.D. candidates, recently received the good news. Facebook launched the program in January in an effort to increase their 'involvement and collaboration with the academic world.' The lucky recipients will receive tuition and fees, a $30,000 paid stipend, as well as other benefits.
Kolar, a third year doctoral student in machine learning, is researching the structure of networks, specifically by developing statistical models that can describe large sets of data. His work can be applied to social networking in many ways, like categorizing group similarities for targeted advertising and predicting trends from changing 'friend' interactions.
"I like to work on challenging problems that have impact," he said, describing his enjoyment in conducting research that can make a difference.
A native of Croatia, he came to Carnegie Mellon in large part for the breadth and diversity of the machine learning department. He was happy to discover a multidisciplinary focus across the university. But it's the Carnegie Mellon community that has made his experience particularly rewarding.
"People are the biggest resource here," he said. "You have great students to collaborate with and then you also have faculty that are leading people in their fields."
Leslie John is earning her Ph.D. in behavioral economics, housed in Carnegie Mellon's social and decision sciences department. It's a field that applies psychological insights to economic issues, and John is focusing on the timely issue of privacy.
"I've been finding that people's concern for privacy and propensity to self-disclose can be influenced ... by factors that are difficult to justify," explained John, who is working with faculty members George Loewenstein and Alessandro Acquisti.
"This research could help to shed light on many of the privacy issues that social networking sites are currently facing; in particular, people's ambivalent and, in some cases contradictory, attitudes when it comes to sharing and withholding information," she continued.
Like her colleague, John enjoys research with real-world significance.
"I was really excited by the research done in the social and decision sciences department," she said. "It's really high impact ... because it's not only of theoretical interest, but it's also of practical importance."
While Facebook gives no directives to its Fellows, there is one thing both the young researchers would love to dig into.
"They have impressive amounts of data which would be very interesting," said Kolar, as John echoed, "to say Facebook has a rich data set would be an understatement; I'd love to have access to an aggregate and anonymous version."