Principal Member of Technical Staff
AT&T Labs – Research
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I am inspired by the idea that we can understand human intelligence, and particularly that we can build models of human intelligence that we can operationalize (cause to work) in computers. There are several STEM-related fields that allow one to study human intelligence (neuroscience and cognitive science) but in computer science I can encode models of intelligence and make them do things to see how they work.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Although I work on many cool projects, the ones that most excite me are related to making computer programs that can have conversations with humans using ‘natural languages’ like English and Spanish, and in particular that can adapt to the humans with whom they are talking. It is in these projects that I am able most directly to look at how thoughts turn into sentences, which is a core intelligence of human beings and central to our everyday lives.
One of my role models is Susan Brennan, who is a cognitive psychologist. So she looks at human language from a slightly different perspective than I do. Like me, Susan is fascinated by how humans communicate. She is an incredibly productive person who has made fundamental contributions to science, and also someone who is genuinely interested in mentoring and helping others.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love knowing that I can do something new, create something no one has done before. This is both exciting and scary! As Jules Verne said, “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” I also love working on things that may make a real difference in people’s lives – for example, make it easier for people with disabilities to access and use technology.
Advice for future STEMinists?
Sometimes you have to be ruthless. The world is full of people who will tell you what you can and should do (and what you cannot and should not do!). But you are the one who has to live with your decisions. So, don’t follow the herd unthinkingly. You have probably read “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost; I have made many life choices that were “the one less traveled by,” and it is true that “that has made all the difference.”
I got into computer science in high school, and you can too! There are typically very few computer science projects in high school science fairs – so the odds of winning an award are good. If you need ideas, try Science Buddies. I also always recommend MentorNet; MentorNet pairs up young people interested in science and engineering with mentors.