MIT students Rupert Li and Audrey Xie named 2023-24 Goldwater Scholars

Undergraduates whose research areas explore discrete math and neural networks honored for their academic achievements.

MIT undergraduates Rupert Li and Audrey Xie have been selected to receive Barry Goldwater Scholarships for the 2023-24 academic year. From an estimated pool of more than 5,000 college sophomores and juniors, nearly 1,300 students were nominated by 427 academic institutions to compete for the scholarship, with Li and Xie representing two of only 413 recipients selected based on academic merit.

Since 1989, the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation has awarded more than 10,000 Goldwater scholarships. The program was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics. Past Goldwater Scholars have gone on to win an impressive array of prestigious postgraduate fellowships, and most of the 2023-24 scholars, including the two recipients from MIT, plan to obtain a doctoral degree in their area of research.

Rupert Li

Rupert Li is a third-year student majoring in mathematical sciences. His research interests center on the field of discrete mathematics, and his current work utilizes a variety of mathematical tools to explore high-dimensional versions of the famous "sphere-packing problem," as well as coding theory.

Since spring 2021, Li has been supervised by Henry Cohn, an adjunct professor in the Department of Mathematics. In a letter recommending Li for the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, Cohn speaks at length about his insight and creativity. "What I find particularly impressive about Rupert’s work is how fresh and innovative it is," Cohn writes. "He isn’t just making incremental progress on other people’s ideas, but rather exploring old topics from a new and different perspective."

Li, for his part, is deeply thankful for the guidance and support Cohn has provided. "He has opened my eyes to incredible areas of math," Li says.

Li is also grateful to his advisor, Professor Julee Kim, for her mentorship and guidance over the past few years. He also extends his thanks to Joe Gallian at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Jim Propp at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Nike Sun, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Mathematics. Finally, he acknowledges the organizers of the MIT PRIMES-USA program, specifically head mentor Tanya Khovanova, lecturer Slava Gerovitch, Professor Pavel Etingof, and RSA Professor of Mathematics and Department Head Michel Goemans.

Li plans to pursue a PhD in mathematics and hopes to one day conduct research in mathematics and teach at the university level.

Audrey Xie

Audrey Xie is a third-year undergrad majoring in mathematics and computer science. Her research focuses on using gradient-based optimizers to train neural networks.

In January 2020, Xie began doing work in the lab of Jonathan Ragan-Kelly, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "It has been obvious almost from the start that Audrey is destined for a highly successful research career," Ragan-Kelly writes in his recommendation letter. "She is intelligent, driven, creative, and analytically and empirically rigorous."

During her first semester working with Ragan-Kelly, Xie designed and ran numerous novel experiments to assess a more efficient method for tuning hyperparameters, which are needed to optimize neural networks. Xie then compiled her results and co-authored a paper that was accepted to the Conference and Workshop on Neural Information Processing Systems, the most prestigious conference in the field of machine learning.

Xie plans to pursue a PhD in computer science and hopes to one day conduct research in machine learning and teach at the university level.

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by the U.S. Congress in 1986 to honor Senator Barry Goldwater, a soldier and national leader who served the country for 56 years. Awardees receive scholarships of up to $7,500 a year to cover costs related to tuition, room and board, fees, and books.

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