Skip to main content
Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI student wins coveted Gates Cambridge scholarship

Media Contact:

KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 19, 2004 -- University of Rhode Island senior Gregory Hughes of Warwick will pursue a doctorate at Cambridge University, one of the leading universities of Europe, thanks to Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda.

The URI student has won the highly competitive Gates Cambridge Scholarship,which was offered to just 31 Americans this year. Gates Scholars are selected on the basis of their intellectual ability, leadership capacity, and their desire to use their knowledge to improve the lives of others.

That in a nutshell describes URI's Hughes who will travel to England next October to begin his doctoral research on adaptive computer software. His goal is to make computers more accessible to people with disabilities, especially people with visual disabilities. All of his expenses for the three-year program, roughly $123,000, will be paid by the scholarship.

"I'm excited and nervous, " says Hughes who will graduate in May. "Ever since I was accepted by Cambridge University (a prerequisite for the scholarship), I was worried about how to pay for it since the University asks for proof of liquid capital to pay for the full three-year program. Now my parents won't have to worry about taking out a second or third mortgage."

Adapting computer systems to work more efficiently for the visually impaired is technically challenging. However, as a computer science major, Hughes who also happens to be legally blind, can draw on his vast computer talent and from personal experience.

Last year, he won the highly competitive Truman Scholarship for leadership. "Before I applied for the Truman, I had two separate aspects of my life, computer science and community service, specifically aiding people with disabilities. My career goal was to get some desk job writing software in someplace like Silicon Valley, while volunteering on the side whenever I could," says the URI student who has logged more than 1,000 hours of community service for various organizations.

Hughes credits the Truman application process for clarifying his life goals. He also is grateful to URI's Honors Program, and in particular, Cheryl Foster, philosophy professor and associate director of the program for her encouragement.

"Applying for the Truman Scholarship made me realize I could merge my community service with my computer talents into a career," he says. "It was the only way I would be truly happy and make the biggest impact on society."

Originally in his Truman proposal, Hughes focused on adapting voting booths for people with disabilities. Although itís important that the change happens, Hughes realized his main desire is to improve equal opportunity in the workplace by ensuring that people with disabilities can not only use computers, but use them with the same ease and efficiency as a normal sighted user.

Most jobs today require employees be computer literate. Learning those skills can be taxing for most people, but for the blind and the visually impaired the task is much more daunting since so much of existing computer programs are visually based. Current screen reader programs simply translate those visual programs into voice commands, forcing users to commit an enormous amount of data to memory. "As someone who is visually impaired, it's easier for me to put my nose up to the screen than to use the current adaptive software. "

Since American graduate schools for computer scientists focus on visual methods of communicating information, Hughes searched outside the country. Cambridge University, with its distinguished record of academic achievement over its 800-year history, was a good fit.

Hughes found a welcoming attitude toward people with disabilities and an established Rainbow Research Group for human computer interaction, which had already created adaptive computer technology for people with mobility impairments.