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Women in Engineering – meet Nayeon Lee

MPhil Program Helps Student Spread Her Wings in “Machine Learning & AI Dream” Realm

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  • MPhil student in Electronic and Computer Engineering; BEng in Computer Science and Engineering (2017), HKUST
  • selected as a Google Women Techmakers Scholar 2017 in the Asia Pacific region

Inspired by Prof Pascale Fung’s passion in machine learning and AI, Nayeon Lee decided to pursue further studies at HKUST after she finished her undergraduate years here. She shares her rewarding experience in the Google Women Techmakers Scholars Program and her vision of creating positive influence on the community of women in technology.

1. Why did you choose HKUST for your undergraduate degree?

I was born in South Korea, however, got most of my education (10 years) at a British international school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As I was taught under British curriculum, I was considering UK and Hong Kong, which has similar system to UK, as my university destinations. Along with the scholarship that it offers, HKUST provides high quality education with a diversified environment. Also, I expected Hong Kong to be full of new opportunities as China is experiencing rapid growth in various industries, including engineering.

2. Why did you want to further your studies at HKUST with an MPhil in Electronic and Computer Engineering?

Despite the fact that I got a job offer from one of the top investment banks, I decided to pursue further studies at HKUST for multiple reasons. With the rise of machine learning, I believe there are many new opportunities for us to make innovation and improve our society. Therefore, I want to dream higher and become one of those engineers who are somehow changing the world. To achieve this, further study in the field of machine learning is a must.

For the further study, I decided to do MPhil program at HKUST because it is a very appealing option. First of all, it provides the chance for me to “try out research” before diving into pursuing PhD, a potential option, which requires a minimum of 4-5 years. Additionally, MPhil program (compared with MSc) offers Postgraduate Studentship that covers the living cost and the tuition of the program. Therefore, I am able to study and research without concerning about the financial issues. Lastly, HKUST has many excellent professors, especially in the field of machine learning and AI. In research, the choice of professors is very important in terms of research topic, the quality of guidance and the availability of good opportunities. I met a professor, Pascale Fung, whom I really liked at HKUST, so that was another reason why I decided to do further studies here. I even changed my major from Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) to Electronic and Computer Engineering (ECE) because I wanted to be under her supervision.

3. Was your interest in engineering stimulated by someone?

With some luck and by coincidence, I worked as a Junior Research Assistant under Prof Pascale Fung in early 2017, and that was when I decided to pursue my career in the field of machine learning and AI. She is a very intelligent and determined person, who is really passionate about technology. While working with her, I was able to learn about the current trend and opportunities that lay in the field of machine learning and AI. I really enjoyed the work I did in her lab, and her energy and passion inspired me a lot. As a result, I’m her student now.

4. Why did you want to apply for the Google Women Techmakers Scholars Program?

I found out about Google Women Techmakers through my friend who was a scholar last year. I wanted to apply because I knew that she had a wonderful experience at Google through this program. Google is one of the top IT companies, so I really wanted to get involved in the events organized by Google to know them better. Also, my supervisor, Prof Pascale Fung, was supportive of my application, so this gave me the confidence that I should just go for it.

5. What benefits did you enjoy as a scholar?

  • Scholarship, awarded based on academic performance, leadership, and impact on the community of women in tech.
  • Retreat, this time in Korea, which is an opportunity to connect with fellow scholars and Google mentors, while participating in professional and personal development trainings and workshops.
  • Community, an online network with fellow scholars program participants designed to share resources, support the global community of women in tech and collaborate on projects to make continued impact.

6. Can you share your experience in the Asia Pacific scholars retreat in Seoul, Korea from Aug 28 – Sept 2?

  • There were lots of opportunity to network with the Googlers and other excellent female scholars. Such networking part was the most rewarding experience for me, because it was very motivational and inspirational to talk to people who were full of passion in technology.
  • A few talks on the gender bias and issues within the tech industry, and the attitude you should have as a female engineer in the industry.
  • Panel discussion and sharing session by the Googlers – it was a very good chance to ask about Google, hear about their working experience at Google, and learn good tips from the people in the industry.
  • There was a coding challenge, and a coding workshop related to Google product (Big Query).
  • Interview/resume workshop that explained the tips on preparing for the interview with tech companies, and writing good resumes.

7. Other than the retreat, are there other activities that you will get involved in?

Google will be sponsoring me to organize an outreach initiatives event to support other women in the field of computer science and technology. Basically, Google is empowering the scholars, and the scholars are encouraged to empower and help other women around them to maximize the positive influence of the Techmakers program.

My outreach initiative will be to host a one-month WomenTech Competition targeting university students in Hong Kong. The theme of the competition will be to either build something that tackles the problems/issues faced by female students or something helpful for social minorities in general. This will be impactful in supporting women in tech in two ways. Firstly, the competition itself will be a good learning experience, because the female participants will be challenged technically, stimulating them to grow and improve. Secondly, if this event is successful, the outcome of the competition will further help other females or social minorities.

8. What research projects are you working on now in your MPhil studies?

One of the projects I did under Prof Pascale Fung is a mobile demo application which detects users’ emotion from their voice and/or face. I incorporated some fun aspect to this application by adding a mini-game that makes use of the emotion detection technology. A paper related to this project was accepted to a conference called Interspeech 2017 that was held in Stockholm in August and I had attended.

Although my research area is still not 100% decided yet, it will be in the application of machine learning, such as computer vision or natural language processing. Currently, I’m working on a project that incorporates deep neural style transfer and computer-human interaction to create an AI art.

9. What is your career aspiration?

Although there is still uncertainty, I plan to either be a researcher or an engineer. If I were to be a researcher, I will continue my studies by doing PhD, and contribute to the society in terms of doing research for the future innovation. However, if I were to become an engineer, I will start working in a technology company and develop products that are helpful to people.

10. Advice to prospective students who are interested in engineering?

Engineering is a field of study that is closely related to the industry. I believe it is about learning how to apply math and science to solve real-world problems to improve and facilitate human life. If you are good at math and science, and you prefer practical application over theoretical academics, engineering will be a good fit for you. However, you should be aware that there are many different fields of engineering that are all very different. Therefore, it is important for you to be extra careful when making the choice within engineering.

11. As a female student, how do you see the gender balance at the School of Engineering?

I’m not sure about other majors, but there is still an imbalance in CSE and ECE. However, I believe this is not because the University is making such discrimination in the admission process, but due to the choice of the female students. When I talk to many female students at the University, many of them still think that math, science and engineering are for male students. If female students change their bias towards engineering, I believe there will be more gender balance in the School in the future. Female students have their own competitive advantage over male students, so they shouldn’t limit themselves.

12. What are the essential qualities that engineering students should possess?

  • Curiosity – if students are curious about “why” and want to know “how” things work, they will find engineering fun. It is important that they enjoy learning what they major in, because that is what will keep them happy and help them excel in their studies. Those who enjoy will probably spend more time trying to figure out things that are out of the scope, just for fun. In long term, accumulation of such knowledge makes a huge difference.
  • Perseverance – there are steep learning curves (= you have to learn fast) involved in many of the topics and subjects in engineering. Without perseverance, it is difficult to cope with the challenges you get from studying engineering.

13. Your tips of success in studying engineering?

  • Always be curious about learning new technology in the engineering field of your choice. Engineering field, especially IT field, is very fast paced, so once you stop learning, you’ll be left behind. However, don’t be stressed about this. Just enjoy the learning process.
  • Be involved in hands-on experience and projects. You learn a lot more from getting involved in real projects. Another benefit of hands-on experience is that it helps you to understand why things you learn at university are important, so it will motivate you to concentrate and get the most out of taught courses.


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