Maina-Kilaas ’23 Awarded Hertz Foundation Fellowship  

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Cognitive science can be understood by studying human and artificial intelligence in tandem. This is the focus of research for Amani Maina-Kilaas ’23 (computer science and mathematics) as a PhD student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he plans to use AI as a scientific tool to study how the mind works. In recognition of his research and promise in STEM innovation, Maina-Kilaas was recently awarded a Hertz Fellowship in applied science, engineering and mathematics by the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. 

The prestigious Hertz Fellowship is a doctoral award that includes five years of funding and entry into a network of over 1,300 worldwide fellows that includes many STEM trailblazers. 2024 Hertz Fellows were chosen for their promise in addressing current pressing challenges, including developing advanced therapeutics, enhancing spaceflight capabilities, designing safer AI systems and predicting the spread of infectious diseases. 

Maina-Kilaas’ research interests began at Harvey Mudd, where he studied intention perception and theoretical machine learning with computer science professor George Montañez as part of the AMISTAD (Artificial Machine Intelligence = Search Targets Awaiting Discovery) lab. For his exemplary academic performance, ingenuity and unique aptitude for research, Maina-Kilaas received the Computing Research Association’s 2022 Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award and was named an Astronaut Scholar (2022–2023) by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. 

“I’m fascinated by how AI can be used to study how the mind works and, conversely, to develop more cognitively realistic models using what we currently know about the mind,” says Maina-Kilaas whose doctoral focus is on computational psycholinguistics at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. In addition to the Hertz Fellowship, Maina-Kilaas’ doctoral research is supported by a Dean of Science Fellowship. 

Other Harvey Mudd alumni who have been named Hertz Fellows include Charlie Westbrook ’67, Sherman Chan ’76, Dana Hobson ’85, Joseph Thywissen ’94, Aaron Archer ’98, Kevin Watkins ’98, Thaddeus Ladd ’98, Joel Miller ’00, Nate Stern ’03, Kevin Esvelt ’04, Adam Pivonka ’05, Gregory Minton ’08, Peter Scherpelz ’08 and Anna Soper ’22.