Undergrad Research Highlights

Overcoming Adversity and Finding a Path to Research


Diego showcases the persistence and determination of a researcher. As an immigrant from Venezuela, finding financial support and resources during his academic pursuits has been difficult given the current status of his home country. This has created uncertainty at times, but Diego has been able to persevere. He balanced his studies with a full-time machine learning developer position.

Diego began his studies at Hillsborough Community College and then transferred to the University of South Florida’s (USF) Computer Science and Engineering program to complete his undergraduate degree.  Diego’s advisor, Dr. Shaun Canavan inspired him, along with Dr. Ali Yalcin, to seek out research opportunities. Diego always had a  motivation and strong desire to work in Artificial Intelligence to better understand its uses, particularly in medical applications. Today,  Diego works in the areas of machine learning, computer vision, and affective computing with the goal of  impacting positive change in people’s lives through research on real-world problems.

One of his projects involved the development of a machine learning model to assess and predict the likelihood of a young child being on the Autism Spectrum by using their eye movements. This is particularly important as the sooner detection occurs, the better treatment children may be able to receive to improve their quality of life. In a second project, Diego created an algorithm to classify emotions such as stress and pain in order to better detect false pain. At times, patients may exaggerate or fabricate extreme pain for various reasons in medical visits. Both projects carry direct real-world impact for people. An impressive feat, Diego has published five first-author papers before the start of his PhD degree through these research projects.

In offering advice, Diego urges students to interact with their professors and engage in the classroom. He found that professors notice a proactive behavior which may turn into interactions and open opportunities. While reflecting on his research experience as an undergraduate, Diego always thought he would never pursue a doctorate. He states expressively, “and look at me now pursuing  one!” Diego recently finished his M.S. degree in Computer Science at USF and will continue his PhD studies at USF.

– Written and edited by Joslenne Peña