The College of Natural Sciences has chosen for its Outstanding Students for 2020-21 computer science graduate student Yue Zhou and undergraduate biology student Michael Pierce.

Both students will receive their degrees at the college’s virtual commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 22, as face-to-face ceremonies have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zhou, who lives in Rancho Cucamonga, will graduate with a master’s degree in computer science. As a graduate student, he served as a teaching associate, teaching three computer science classes to students from different disciplines. He was responsible for 30-60 students and the design of lecture slides and lab materials, and the evaluation of assignments.

“It is rewarding to share my knowledge and help students,” Zhou said. “I also find it rewarding to receive emails from students asking if I will be teaching next semester.”

His career goal is to obtain a Ph.D. in natural language processing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and ultimately a career in academic research.

He chose natural language processing because he was intrigued by the nuances of human language, and how computational approaches can access, understand, and even generate human languages.

“I realized what I wanted was not just incremental, but novelty,” he said. “I feel a surge of anxiety and excitement knowing that I would pursue a Ph.D. in natural language processing and a career in academic research.”

Zhou said his proudest achievements were three papers advised by CSUSB professors.

“I gave talks and presentations on natural language processing at international conferences and at CSUSB,” Zhou said. “I wrote academic post on latest research on certain subfields of NLP. And I believe all these activities made me receive great Ph.D. offers from different universities. I feel I am so close to join the NLP community with top researchers.”

Zhou, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Freiburg in Frieburg, Germany, said CSUSB proved to be a good introduction to American academics and scholars.

“The learning experience in CSUSB has helped me become accustomed to the American style of education and academic mindset and introduced me to working with some great researchers. Working with Professor Yan Zhang, I proposed a probabilistic approach for satirical news tweet detection based on rhetorical features; with Professor Kerstin Voigt, I introduced a sentiment-based stock index prediction system, which outperformed the state-of-the-art approaches,” Zhou said. “It is always a joyful moment when I know my idea works and it in turn provides nice insights into my research.”

Michael Pierce, who lives in Redlands, will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biology and he plans to attend the California University of Science and Medicine in Colton and ultimately become a physician.

He credits his father, sister and fiancé for inspiring him. “These are the people who are consistently encouraging me through difficult times and give me the motivation that I need to succeed,” Pierce said.

His proudest accomplishment was “getting accepted into medical school. I am a first-generation student, from a low socioeconomic, rural city who worked multiple jobs, full and part time, to ensure I was able to pay my way through my undergraduate degree.”

He chose biology as a major because of his interest in the science. “I grew up always wanting to understand the biology around me,” he said. “How the leaves changed colors, how different animals functioned, and was incredibly interested in diseases and how we discovered the medicines that treated those diseases.”

He said his interest led him to doing research in the field, which began after he transferred to CSUSB.

“While in my cell biology class, Dr. David Rhoads, who would later become one of my mentors, spoke enthusiastically about his research into mitochondrial regulation of gene expression. I expressed interest into his lab and was fortunate enough to earn a spot in his lab,” Pierce said. “I spent the next year researching plant mitochondrial signaling during heat stress and presenting at multiple symposiums on campus.”

He continued to enroll in higher level biology courses that emphasized research, such as professor Nicole Bournias-Vardiabasis’s Animal Tissue Culture class that led to major research possibilities.

“It was in this class that I learned of a unique research opportunity, one that would provide incredible research experience alongside Ph.D. level researchers at major institutions across California, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine bridges grant,” Pierce said. “This grant, which covered tuition expenses and paid a monthly stipend, allowed me to contribute to ongoing ovarian cancer research taking place at Loma Linda University, earning co-authorship on the paper published.”

He said both professors became his mentors as both dedicated a great amount of time helping him through his undergraduate career. But he said the professors within the biology department were all helpful.

“I wasn’t just a student ID number on their grading report. All of the professors of the biology department were all in love with their specialty and wanted to share their experiences with all of their students. These professors always had an open door policy and wanted to help students in any way they could,” Pierce said. “I was able to spend time one on one with many professors that discussed anything that I was having trouble with, from a concept we learned in class, to balancing work and life outside of school.”