A lot of people would describe MIT as the pinnacle of engineering and science in North America – how did your experiences at UBC Okanagan prepare you for graduate studies at MIT?
MIT is a pretty amazing place to be–and surprisingly, it’s about the same size in terms of student population as UBC Okanagan. I think having around 10,000 students is sort of a sweet spot–a great size to be able to run into people you know on campus and still meet new people every day. The community at UBCO definitely helped prepare me for grad school– even though when I first came to MIT, I felt way out of my depth. Taking graduate-level courses that I had practically none of the pre-requisites for (as my bachelor’s was in mechanical engineering, whereas my master’s was in computer science) was tough, to say the least. Fortunately, though, students, staff and faculty at UBCO provided an academic rigor and community of support, preparing me for a challenge. Some of my fondest memories at UBCO are of working on tough projects with friends late into the night, and finally cracking that last problem right before the deadline. I remember once designing a motor for a group project in a way that the professor thought would be near-impossible–or at least very difficult–to implement. At around 3:30 am, four and a half hours before we had to present our work, we also thought it might be impossible. But we didn’t give up, and against all odds, our motor started spinning right before the deadline. At UBCO, I learned not to give up, as well as the value of supportive friends, faculty, and staff. The same is true at MIT. Without the support of my community–back home as well as in Boston–I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m incredibly thankful for those who have mentored and been there for me.
How have your studies evolved since you started at MIT?
They’ve changed a lot! I originally applied to MIT thinking I would continue the autonomous vehicle research I did at UBCO. After visiting MIT, though, I realized I had the freedom to choose any area where my interests aligned with a professor’s. One of my favourite things at UBCO was teaching younger students how to code. There’s nothing like watching others solve problems in their communities through programming–especially when they’ve never programmed before! So when I heard Dr. Hal Abelson was doing this through his research at MIT, I asked to join his lab. For my master’s, I developed an interface within MIT App Inventor (an open source website lowering the barrier to entry to programming) to empower young learners to develop their own conversational agents–computer programs that can talk to humans. Students created recycling-helper agents, memory-helper agents, and even apps to help people living with deafness use Amazon Alexa.
Now, for my PhD, I’m developing a conversational agent to lower the barrier to entry to programming even further. So, for example, someone might ask the agent, “Make my robot dance while playing my favourite song”, and through the conversation that follows, the user and agent will collaboratively program the robot to do so. My hope is that eventually, everyone will be able to program and access the problem-solving potential it provides.
How different has your experience been between MIT and UBC Okanagan?
Like I said before, when I first came to MIT, I thought it would be huge–it’s at the forefront of so much of research–so I was surprised to find that it’s a similar size to UBCO in terms of number of students. I love the tight-knit feel, and being able to find someone you know at almost any school event. One difference, though, is the ratio of graduate to undergraduate students. At MIT, the majority of students are graduates and it seems like everyone is investigating some fascinating new technology or theory.
One thing I love about MIT is that, in my experience, no matter how big your “sigma”–how much you differ from the norm–you are accepted. There are so many unique interests here–we have clubs about the science of creating chocolate, how to lightsaber duel, and even a Canadian club. Although, now that I think about it, some of the clubs at UBCO were also pretty unique–people can’t believe that I used to be a part of a “concrete toboggan” club!
What was it like crossing the stage at MIT to accept your MASc?
That’s actually a funny story–at MIT, before crossing the stage, we walk around one of the fields dressed in our graduation gowns. (I think it’s so that friends and family can take photos, but I’m honestly not sure.) As I was walking, one of my shoes broke, and in true MIT-fashion, my friends banded together to engineer it back into working shape. Unfortunately, though, it fell back apart right before I was about to cross the stage, so I ended up walking across barefoot! They got a pretty good photo of it too. (It was all good though–many of the MIT undergrads go shoeless around campus, so I fit in well!)
All things considered (including the shoe mishap), it felt pretty surreal walking the stage. It was difficult transitioning from an undergraduate mechanical engineering degree to a graduate computer science degree. The courses were tough, and I didn’t know much about the subjects–especially at the graduate level. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would be able to finish. With the support of friends and family, though, I passed the technical qualifying exams and completed my thesis (and made it to the stage without completely shredding the soles of my (very bare) feet!) The journey wasn’t easy, but I’m incredibly thankful for the experience and all the support!
You’ve decided to pursue a PhD – how do you anticipate your PhD studies to differ from your MASc?
I talked a bit about how my research will differ–moving from a visual programming system (App Inventor) to a voice-based system for AI and computer science democratization–but in terms of the studies themselves, it will involve less coursework, and more focused research and development. One thing I love about doing research is the opportunity to attend conferences and learn from people from around the world, and I think I’ll get to do this even more at the PhD level.
You still keep in contact with the UBC Okanagan, the SOE and faculty here – why is that important to you?
I grew and learned a ton while at UBCO. The faculty and staff there had incredible impact on the trajectory of my life–for instance, if it wasn’t for Renee Leboe reaching out to me about potentially joining the SOE, I wouldn’t have even considered engineering! Same goes for Dr. Najjaran, who inspired me to consider grad school. I am so thankful for the people I met there and glad I can stay in contact with them.
Although you are just starting your PhD, do you have a clearer vision of what you hope to accomplish when you are done?
Beyond developing a conversational programming agent and finishing my dissertation, I hope that my research inspires others to use technology to solve problems they care about. Being able to program has given me a great advantage in a technology-filled world, and I hope to empower others in the same way.