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Saturday June 25th

Meet this UNC senior who won a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge

UNC senior Scott Emmons received the Churchill Scholarship to study computer science at University of Cambridge. Photo courtesy of Emmons.
Buy Photos UNC senior Scott Emmons received the Churchill Scholarship to study computer science at University of Cambridge. Photo courtesy of Emmons.

Scott Emmons, a UNC senior, does not spend his Friday nights like most college students.

“I remember one time, we were hanging out in Sitterson, the computer science building, and he ended up staying in the big lecture hall until 11 p.m. on a Friday night just talking about (math) and writing stuff about his work on the chalkboard,” said Mark Dawson, former UNC student and friend of Emmons. “It was fun.”

Emmons’ passion for math and computer science led him to be awarded the Churchill Scholarship by the Winston Churchill Foundation. He is one of 15 students in the nation who received this award.

He was nominated by the University for the scholarship and then chosen by the foundation from a pool of applicants from over 100 collegiate institutions in the United States.

The scholarship covers all university and college fees and will provide Emmons with an allowance to attend Cambridge University in England. There, he will be participating in a year-long program called MPhil in Advanced Computer Science that consists of coursework and research. 

Emmons plans to have a research career “aligning machine intelligence with human values.” 

“When we think about the future, our decisions are going to be increasingly made by algorithms,” Emmons said. “As our society becomes increasingly run by algorithms, this has the potential for extraordinary benefits. We might have safer, more efficient transportation (and) more effective drug recommendations at a lower cost.”

At Cambridge, Emmons said he will have the opportunity to work with a machine learning group to learn how to make algorithms that can detect mistakes in a machine to improve its overall functioning. 

Emmons has conducted research in theoretical computer science and algorithms at Indiana University Bloomington, he has worked with professors from the University of Arizona and is dual-enrolled at Duke University through the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program. He has written four peer-reviewed academic publications since coming to UNC.

Emmons spent two summers teaching math and computer science with the Sunflower County Freedom Project in the Mississippi Delta and with the Shanti Bhavan Children's Project in Tamil Nadu, India.

“I am inspired to study these subjects because of the beauty of the field,” Emmons said. “I want to share these beautiful things with other people, so that’s why over the summers I’ve dedicated them to teaching.”

In Mississippi, Emmons helped African-American youth in the area to continue their studies with a summer enrichment program. 

“In the month before I arrived, the federal court actually ordered the school district to desegregate,” Emmons said. “Even decades after Brown v. Board of Education, they still had not desegregated.” 

In India, Emmons worked with a program that provided children whose families made less than $2 a day with room, board and education.

“I got the chance to teach math there (and) to teach computer science,” said Emmons. “I mentored the older students on subjects on the basis of their college entrance exams. I was also able to teach some of the younger students science, math (and) get them exposed, to be curious and have these ideas.”

Through these experiences, Emmons discovered his passion for teaching. 

“I have never met somebody who has had such a high aptitude for learning,” said senior and friend, Bill Hansen. “He is also very willing to sit down with other people and teach them. He wants to be a professor so he has really gone out of his way to teach people as well.”

Those around Emmons said they believe him to be one of the best students at UNC.

“Scott is the best student that I have ever met, which is crazy to say because I have been around very good students in high school and obviously here at UNC,” said Hansen. “The reason why he is such a good student is he has almost perfected efficiency in the way in which he goes about his courses and in the way in which he goes about studying.”

After Cambridge, Emmons said he plans to continue his education and receive a doctoral degree in computer science. Along with researching how to align machine algorithms with human values, he hopes to collaborate with policymakers and entrepreneurs to ensure a smooth transition of technology into society. 


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