Celebrating student research at the Khoury College 40th Anniversary event
This academic year, the Khoury College of Computer Sciences has been celebrating its 40th anniversary. Since its beginnings in 1982 with 11 faculty members and 239 students, it now offers programs at 13 campuses in the Northeastern global university system. After touring from London to Vancouver and everywhere in between, college Dean Elizabeth Mynatt, Associate Dean of Network Campuses Jodi Tims, and a host of other visitors landed in the Bay Area.
After events in Oakland and San Francisco, the final stop was the Silicon Valley campus. Students, faculty, research apprentices and visitors all gathered for a panel discussion and research showcase. Two rooms and a large patio were filled with students’ posters and digital presentations exhibiting their work.
MS in Computer Science student Zeyu (Zoe) Cui was there to talk about her Khoury Apprenticeship project. She has built a browser-based game using an open source game engine, Godot, and its programming language, GDScript. The project brings together gaming with real world puzzles by challenging players to tackle the complex system of weights and balances in packing a container ship.
LeAnn Mendoza, MS in Data Science student, recently took home second prize at the ACM Student Research Competition (Graduate Division) at the 2023 SIGCSE conference. She was back on home ground to talk with students and visitors about her research project which centers on “developing low-cost, compact deep learning networks using knowledge distillation and applying them to autonomous driving vehicles in the classroom,” as she explained.
All down the line, the topics were as varied as the interests of the researchers presenting them. And this, said Dean Elizabeth Mynatt as she took the microphone in front of the gathered crowd, is what Khoury College is all about.
“I’ve spent my career focused on interdisciplinary education and research,” she said, “but I’ve never had the privilege to work in a place where our foundation is so solid that over a third of our academic faculty have joint appointments.”
Mynatt, who joined Northeastern in January of 2022, is internationally recognized for her research in ubiquitous computing, human-centered technology, and assistive technologies. A fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery with over 100 published papers, Mynatt is also quoted in mainstream lay sources like National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal. Amongst many other projects connecting computer science to interdisciplinary challenges, her past work includes serving as director of the Everyday Computing Lab at Georgia Tech where her research supported personalized mobile technologies for breast cancer patients, and as a leading researcher at the Aware Home Research Initiative, which worked on smart home technologies for independent living for aging adults. Khoury’s mission, “CS is for everyone,” is a natural fit.
“Our emphasis on accessible and actionable education is that it’s paired with our focus on research leadership and impact,” she told the room. “The best way I can summarize this is when we say computer science is for everyone, is that everyone should benefit.”
“And if you look at the history of computer science and what’s in the news today, [the field doesn’t] have a good track record. So we have tremendous work to do to engage in our research community. If computer science is for everyone and everyone benefits, how do we empower, encourage, hire, recruit, resource, cajole a research community that can live up to that mission?”
Mynatt spoke about several Khoury College alumni honored in the school’s 40 for 40 profile series who exemplify the interdisciplinary, try-anything spirit the college cultivates. Present in the room was Greg Waters (MS in Computer Science ’89), who, despite not working in higher education, was a key partner in the launch of Northeastern Silicon Valley in 2015. At the time Waters was CEO at IDT (Integrated Device Technology), a semiconductor company in San Jose. Northeastern’s California graduate programs launched within the IDT campus, connecting graduate students directly to the San Jose tech world. In 2019, together with Northeastern Professor Jose Martinez Lorenzo, Waters founded MatrixSpace, a company that builds sensing products with AI processing for outdoor spaces. The research-driving startup operates out of the Kostas Research Institute at Northeastern’s Burlington, MA campus.
Another key figure in the Silicon Valley campus’ history was Jodi Tims, the first director for Khoury College in the Bay Area. Now the Associate Dean for Network Programs, she opened the panel discussion of the evening by defining where the college stands in regards to research.
“When people think about university research,” she said, “they think of PhD students and tenure faculty. We’re looking at how to grow this notion to include faculty and master’s students, and make that its own significant research channel that will eventually merge with what we do around our network.”
She introduced a panel of locally-based Northeastern researchers. Jeongkyu Lee, Teaching Professor, studies questions involving big data. John Alexis Guerra Gómez, Assistant Teaching Professor, researches information visualization and innovative forms of accessibility for the blind. Aida Sharif Rohani, an alumnus of the Silicon Valley campus, was the first student to complete a master’s thesis for Khoury in California, and now works at NASA Ames Research Center using machine learning to improve flight safety and fine tune trajectory predictions. And Ricardo Baeza-Yates, Sharif Rohani’s thesis advisor and the Director of Research at Northeastern’s Institute for Experiential AI, is currently investigating issue of responsible AI.
The discussion centered around a key topic: why is it beneficial for master’s students to engage in research?
For Lee, the idea that research is somehow disconnected from the “real world” is flawed. “Research is the foundation of computer science and information technology,” he said. “If you encounter any problem in your job, you can find the solution through your research [abilities].”
Sharif Rohani agreed, and expanded on how the research abilities she developed as a student inform her work today. “The machine learning space is changing so fast. Being able to do research, read the literature and find the very recent trends in universities and industries is very important. Having done a thesis in your master’s really helps you develop those skills so you can independently learn from papers.”
“The field I’m working in right now is totally different, it’s in aviation,” she explained. “But the techniques and tools I learned during my master’s, I’m using them every day.”
Guerra Gómez agreed that research prepares students for any future path they might choose, whether it’s in industry or in academia. And he also pointed out the immediate value of the research itself, and the unique opportunity students have to pursue any area that piques their interest.
“If you go and see the projects that my students are presenting here,” he said, gesturing towards the room of academic posters, “there are projects ranging from network visualizations to guitar improvisation, a website for a non-profit, or filtering of data to help people [care for] preterm babies in developing countries. You can go and choose the things that you’re really passionate about, and go really deep, and develop the same or even more skills than you would in a lecture course.”
Baeza-Yates too believed that the intellectual challenge of research was crucial to helping students develop not just as professionals, but as people.
“I think you can benefit from research ideas in all aspects of your life. Research helps you to embrace uncertainty. Everything changes quickly and that’s OK, that’s part of doing research. And one corollary of that is that you don’t make any plans. And that’s good, because if you don’t make any plans, then you really take the best available opportunity that you have. You learn to embrace whatever you have, without having fear for change.”
“That’s how you have a person like Aida,” he added proudly, “who is working for NASA.”
And what did the group see for Khoury College’s next 40 years? The faculty hope to see more PhD students taking on even bigger research projects. They also hope to continue seeing more students taking the opportunity to do a master’s thesis or an apprenticeship. And they’re excited for continued growth of the Northeastern global network and the opportunities it can provide students and faculty to engage with peers around the world.
“So we’re talking about breaking down geographic barriers and breaking down disciplinary barriers,” Tims summarized.
“Yes,” agreed Baeza-Yates. “Breaking the silos.”