Fort Mill Times

Fort Mill native earns award, locks in dream

Lauren Elizabeth Cairco
Lauren Elizabeth Cairco

Lauren Elizabeth Cairco dreams of being instrumental in improving computer accessibility for seniors.

A graduate research fellowship that tops $90,000 will help make the Fort Mill woman's dream come true. Cairco, who turned 22 last week, was named the recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, according to a release issued from Winthrop University.

"I was shaking," Cairco said of winning the award in April. "I couldn't believe it. I didn't expect to get it. I had a lot of competition...and they had really great ideas."

On April 10, Cairco received award notification via an e-mail before she was honored during Winthrop's Office of Nationally Competitive Awards ceremony held April 25. The coveted honor, which comes with a $30,000 annual stipend, is given to students who are in the early stages of embarking upon a research-based doctorate's degree.

The award is no small feat, said Will Thacker, Cairco's Winthrop computer science professor of three years.

"It's highly competitive nationally," he said. "Very few are given."

Cairco, who graduated in 2005 from Fort Mill High School, is worthy of the honor, Thacker said.

"It recognizes her potential to make significant contributions to the field of computer science," he said. "She has a commitment to improving society."

And a dream.

Cairco's proposal will make maneuvering computers more easy for senior adults and those with disabilities, she said.

"For them, there are a lot more barriers to using the computer," Cairco said. "I'm really passionate about extending the benefits of computing to people who don't traditionally have them."

So Cairco, who is set to embark on higher learning at Clemson University this fall, wants to spend part of her life developing a virtual animated human icon that would be anchored on the bottom of the computer. That icon would serve as an accessibility bridge, she said.

"Instead of using the traditional point and click interface, an elderly or handicap person could just talk to the virtual human," she said. "If interacting on the computer is like talking to a human, then using the computer will be more natural.

"You can say, 'Make this text bigger,' or 'Could you read this to me?' and the virtual human will do that instead of the person having to go through all the settings in the control panel on their computer."

Cairco, who graduated from Winthrop May 8 with a degree in computer science, hopes to start developing the virtual human in about five years, she said.

In addition to the annual $30,000 stipend, those honored with the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship received a $10,500 cost of education allowance, a one-time $1,000 national travel allowance and access to a TeraGrid Supercomputer.