Stanford mathematics senior wins Churchill Scholarship

The goal of the Churchill Scholarship program is to promote scientific exchange between the United States and the United Kingdom, helping to ensure future prosperity and security.

Stanford senior Anna Thomas, a mathematics major, has been awarded a Churchill Scholarship, which provides funding to American students for one year of master’s study in science, mathematics and engineering at the University of Cambridge in England.

Anna Thomas

Anna Thomas (Image credit: Sydney Maples)

Thomas, who is minoring in computer science, was one of 15 students awarded scholarships today by the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States.

The scholarships were established at the request of the British statesman and prime minister Winston Churchill to fulfill his vision of scientific exchange between the United States and the United Kingdom. The goal of the scholarships is to advance science and technology on both sides of the Atlantic, helping to ensure prosperity and security.

As a Churchill Scholar, Thomas, 21, of San Jose, California, plans to pursue a master’s degree in information engineering at Churchill College, which is part of the University of Cambridge.

Interest is machine learning

Thomas said her primary interest is in machine learning – a branch of artificial intelligence based on the idea that machines should be able to learn and adapt through experience.

Within machine learning, her interests include interactive machine learning and adaptive data collection. She said Cambridge, which is home to numerous world-renowned researchers in machine learning, is the ideal place for her to pursue further research.

“I’m very grateful to all of the people who helped me in this process, including Diane Murk and John Pearson of the Overseas Resource Center, who provided support throughout the application process, as well as John Duchi, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and of statistics who first encouraged me to apply,” she said.

At the University of Cambridge, Thomas plans to focus on multi-task learning, a growing area of interest in which a model is trained to solve multiple tasks.

“Within multi-task learning, one area that interests me is known as curriculum learning, which is the idea that, as in human learning, the order of training tasks matters,” she said.

“Parents do not sample books uniformly at random from a library for their toddler to read, but rather adaptively select training examples at the appropriate level of difficulty. Approaches based on this idea have been applied successfully in practice, but we don’t currently have a clear framework for understanding them.”

Devoted to research

During the spring of her freshman year, Thomas joined the Computation & Cognition Lab of Noah D. Goodman, an associate professor of psychology and of computer science. There, she worked on two research projects, both of which were published as conference papers, in Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems in 2016 and at Eurographics in 2018.

Since October 2017, Thomas has been working with Christopher Ré, an associate professor of computer science, on methods for resource-constrained machine learning in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Thomas also devoted herself to research during the summer months of her undergraduate years. Last summer, she worked with the Robotics Team of Google Brain, an artificial intelligence research project at Google. During the previous two summers, she worked on projects with the Machine Learning and Perception Group of Microsoft Research Ltd. in Cambridge, U.K.

“Looking to the future, I am excited about applying ideas from machine learning to improve society and help others reach their potential,” Thomas said.  “Particular application areas I am interested in include robotics and personalized education.”

At Stanford, Thomas worked with several student organizations devoted to education and diversity, including the Symbolic Systems Society, Women in Computer Science, Stanford Sanskriti, a South Asian student organization, Girls Teaching Girls to Code, and Stanford Splash!, a two-day educational program for students grade 7-12 on campus, where she taught classes on distance metric learning and cryptography, and the Stanford University Mathematical Organization, for which she is a peer tutor. 

Stanford students interested in overseas scholarships and Stanford faculty interested in nominating students for such awards should contact Diane Murk, manager of the Overseas Resource Center, at, or John Pearson, director emeritus of the Bechtel International Center, at