The University of Texas at Dallas

Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science

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Jonsson School Researcher Named Goldwater Scholar

Jonsson School Researcher Named Goldwater Scholar

An undergraduate computer science student at The University of Texas at Dallas has been recognized with an award from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

Dr. Douglas Dow

Dr. Douglas Dow

Anja Sheppard, a junior in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science is among 410 chosen from a pool of 1,256 college sophomores and juniors from across the U.S. studying natural science, engineering and mathematics to receive the scholarships. Honoring the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the scholarships provide up to $7,500 per year.

Sheppard and Grace Moore, a sophomore in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, are the University’s 23rd and 24th recipients of the prestigious scholarships. Dr. Douglas Dow, associate dean of the Hobson Wildenthal Honors College and clinical professor of political science, described the Goldwater Scholarship as the nation’s leading scholarship designed to recognize and help promote young STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] researchers at the earliest stages of their careers.

“Both of our Goldwater recipients showed great creativity in continuing to expand their research and scientific skills and experiences under severe COVID-19 restrictions,” he said. “Anja has developed such an extensive foundation in robotics, linking academic study — both at UT Dallas and abroad — with high-profile internship opportunities. It is extraordinary to see a scholar so early in her career with such extensive research experience in academia, governmental agencies and global business environments.”

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation was established by Congress in 1986. Over the Goldwater Scholarship’s history, hundreds of recipients have gone on to win prestigious awards, including National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, Rhodes Scholarships, Churchill Scholarships, Hertz Fellowships and Marshall Scholarships.

Building Better Robotics

Anja Sheppard, a Eugene McDermott Scholar from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, found her passion for robotics through competitions at her high school, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. She also got a head start on research there.

“I did a mini research project my senior year on robotic navigation in affiliation with a mentor at North Carolina State [University],” she said. “That helped me have a sure footing when I came to UT Dallas and helped me know that I wanted to continue to do research.”

Anja Sheppard

Anja Sheppard

As a freshman, Sheppard joined the Laboratory for Autonomous Robotics and Systems, working under the direction of Dr. Mark W. Spong, professor of systems engineering and of electrical and computer engineering, and holder of the Excellence in Education Chair. Spong also supervised her work while she conducted research with the Connected Autonomous Vehicles group at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the United Kingdom.

“Anja’s ideas have been used to progress research on simulation software with the Bristol autonomous vehicle group, and for work used in NASA’s International Space Station,” Spong said.

While at Bristol, she began the research that she’d eventually submit for the Goldwater honor — but when the pandemic hit, she had to abruptly return home.

Sheppard said UT Dallas undergraduates are very fortunate to have varied research opportunities available to them.

“Advisors here are 100% willing to work with undergraduate students who have the courage to reach out,” she said. “Dr. Spong has been extremely open to letting me pursue my own path — giving me valuable advice while letting me do things my own way.”

Spong said that even among exceptionally talented students whom he has mentored during his 40-year career in higher education, Anja stands out.

“Anja’s knowledge and technical skills are exceptional for someone at her career stage,” he said. “I have no doubt that she will become a leader of her generation of research scientists and engineers.”

Sheppard intends to pursue a master’s degree or PhD in robotics, while also exploring her interest in technology ethics.

“Ultimately, my goal is to do autonomous robotics research for NASA or another government entity. I have already interned for NASA, and I’m very hopeful of keeping that going,” she said.

A version of this story ran in News Center.


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