CSpotlight: Finding a Supportive Environment

Why did you choose to pursue a degree in computer science specifically at the University of Minnesota?

The main reason is that the University of Minnesota has one of the best computer science programs. When deciding where I wanted to study, I looked very carefully at the environment of the University. Were the professors and students supportive? Was the Department itself supportive of me and my pursuits? In addition, since I’m a PhD student, I also carefully looked at the research lab and advisors that I would be working with. Ultimately, I found that the University of Minnesota fit these criteria perfectly. 


How did you become interested in computer science? What are your specific interests within the field?

I grew up in a small city, Tigray, Ethiopia. Most of the people in my community were farmers, so I wasn't introduced to computer programming until much later in my life. I got interested in computer science once I started my undergrad. I started to read about computers and especially, during my second year, I started to get interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning. That led me to what I'm currently working on. My focus point is the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). I mainly work on designing machine learning systems that easily collaborate with humans.


Congratulations on earning a fellowship! How will this fellowship impact your academic and extracurricular work?

The fellowships are very crucial for Ph.D. students. I was fortunate to get the College of Science and Engineering fellowship. It enables me the flexibility to pick projects of my interest and focus on the research that I'm passionate about. It greatly reduces distractions from working on my research. It anchors me towards my research and drives me to invest a lot of my time towards my research projects.


Are you involved in any student groups? What inspired you to get involved? What do you hope to contribute to the computer science community at the University?

I haven’t been a part of a student group yet. But, I'm trying to get involved in the Black Students Association this semester. As everyone knows, Black people are underrepresented in the field of computing in general. This number gets even lower when you go to graduate studies, especially Ph.D. programs. In this case, I would like to be part of the association and help with such initiatives to support other Black students. I am very excited for that opportunity.


Have you been involved with any research on campus?

My current project is related to mental health, particularly depression. There is extensive research to detect depression on social media posts. The majority of the models are built on U.S. centric datasets. However, there’s limited work in understanding whether such models generalize in cross cultural data. In my project, we are trying to evaluate model generalization on cross cultural social media data particularly on Twitter. We try to identify depression related posts on Twitter, by collecting data from different regions of the world and evaluate how models built in such a dataset perform. For example, if the data was gathered in the U.S., we would generalize the model to be used in Africa, East Asia, and other regions.


What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

Be cognizant about the environment that you put yourself in. Make sure you are getting the support that you need to succeed. The University of Minnesota is very supportive, be sure to seek out that support when you need it. It could be from the students, professors, and the staff. I found everyone at the University of Minnesota to be supportive. 


What are your plans after graduation?

My plan is to continue doing my research, which is in human-AI interaction, and figuring out more ways to use AI in our everyday lives.


Are there any additional experiences you did that you would like to highlight?

There may be students who are like me that came from an environment that is not exposed to computer science. I would recommend to keep reaching out and getting the help you need. It may be a little extra work, but it’s worth it to have the knowledge of these systems. You will find your calling. Take the opportunities offered by the University of Minnesota, such as getting help from professors and teaching assistants. Keep working on it even though it is a very new thing to you.