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Portrait of Josue Torres-Fonseca

When learning a new language, people rely on more than just words. They get feedback, gestures and emotional responses from others, all of which can make learning easier. In our modern world, humans and computers connect more than ever. So, what would happen if computers could exhibit the kinds of emotional cues that help with language learning?

Alum Josue Torres-Fonseca (BS, computer science, 2023) received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to explore that question and others at the intersection of natural language processing and machine learning.

“I have always been an academic at heart,” Torres-Fonseca said. “I remember as a 5-year-old attending college classes with my parents when they both decided to get their degrees. Even though the concepts were often beyond my understanding, there was something about advanced knowledge that spoke to my soul.”

At Boise State, Torres-Fonseca discovered his passion for research while pushing the boundaries of what is achievable for spoken dialogue systems. At the same time, he advocated for Hispanic representation in STEM fields. He worked in the Speech, Language and Interactive Machines group with Casey Kennington, an associate professor of computer science.

“Josue has an amazing drive, which led him to publish two papers while working on a third, all while being the president of two student clubs, applying for and getting national scholarships and fellowships, successfully applying to graduate programs at top universities, with a full-time class load with challenging courses,” Kennington said.

Torres-Fonseca, who grew up in Boise, was a Goldwater Scholar, a Boise State Top Ten Scholar and a McNair Scholar. The latter program is a federal initiative to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who pursue doctoral degrees. He would not have accomplished what he did during his undergraduate years, he said, without the support of his mentors on campus and his fellow computer science students. In fall 2023, he began his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.

“Boise State is growing into an amazing research institution,” Torres-Fonseca said. “Many of the labs are newer or still looking to grow. That gives room for undergraduates to take on more responsibilities and have more opportunities than they would in other places.”