Undergrad hits a high note with selection as Mitchell Scholar

A Duck with a desire to combine machine learning with music is the first UO undergraduate ever to receive the prestigious Mitchell Scholarship.

Joseph Yaconelli was recognized as a member of the 21st class of George J. Mitchell Scholars last week at the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C. A member of the Class of 2019, he is the second UO student overall to receive the award.

“I was blown away,” Yaconelli said. “I was absolutely humbled by the incredible work being done by my peers. It was such an honor to be among so many brilliant minds, and it made it that much more shocking when I got the news only a few hours after interviewing that I had been selected.”

Administered by the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, the Mitchell Scholarship Program sends future American leaders to Ireland for a year of graduate study. The program provides full tuition, housing and a stipend of $15,000 distributed over the 12 months.

Yaconelli is one of 12 scholars selected out of 300 applicants. Other members of the class include an animator, the founder of Chess for Girls in New York City, the chief of staff to the Maryland House Judiciary Committee, and the 2015 Canadian Junior Figure Skating national champion.

Yaconelli graduated last spring with a joint bachelor’s degree in math and computer science with a minor in music. He was a recipient of both the PathwayOregon and Stamps scholarships.

“During his time at the UO, Joseph excelled in his cross-disciplinary academic work in computer science, mathematics, and music,” said Kathleen Freeman, senior instructor and director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Computer and Information Science. “He was generous with his time and talents, including working with the PathwayOregon student success program.”

Yaconelli will begin his studies at Ireland’s University College Dublin in September 2020, pursuing a master’s degree in computer science.

“I'm most drawn to applying machine learning to music generation, an area which allows me to combine my loves for computer science and music,” Yaconelli said. “I hope to gain a more thorough understanding of the ethical dilemmas surrounding machine learning, and the technical problems involved in mitigating these dilemmas, so that we can strive to use technology to benefit all of humankind, void of recklessness, greed and prejudice.”

His passions for music and computer science have combined in many different ways. In addition to his scholarly work, Yaconelli currently plays bass for the band Jonny West. He also started the band Conflicts with Caribou in Eugene before he moved to Minneapolis. Yaconelli also wrote an algorithm that created a jazz motif solo.

He found an avenue for studying machine learning with cognitive science in spring 2018 when he worked in the UO’s Neural Integrated Perception Lab designing experiments to test perception of visual illusions.

Later that summer, Yaconelli traveled to University College Dublin for the Computer Simulation of Musical Creativity conference to present research he did with a colleague from Harvey Mudd College on the capabilities of learning process and grammar representation in educational music software.

While at University College Dublin, he met a number of professors he will now be able to work with to research machine learning within the field of computational creativity. Yaconelli also is interested in learning from the innovations and strategies being used as part of Ireland’s Innovation 2020 commitment. He will have the opportunity to connect with researchers, leaders and innovators across Ireland from other universities and the private sector involved in the initiative.

“Joseph is a great example of what University of Oregon students can accomplish,” said Josh Snodgrass, associate vice provost for undergraduate research and distinguished scholarships. “This scholarship is highly prestigious and my hope is that other UO students will see Joseph's award and realize that they too can compete with students from other leading universities. We are here to help students identify scholarships and to assist them in the application process.”

The UO’s last Mitchell Scholarship recipient was Katie Dwyer, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the UO in 2010 and a master’s in 2012. She was selected for the Mitchell award in 2011.

For more information about distinguished scholarships and applications, visit the Office of Distinguished Scholarships website. For more information about the Mitchell Scholarship, visit the Mitchell Scholarship website.

—By Jesse Summers, University Communications