Multiple Research Projects with Faculty Fuel Passions

With dual majors in computer science and mathematics, Jerry Phuc Ngo’23 has found Beloit College a nurturing environment for his interest in artificial intelligence. 

Attracted by its clarity and logic, Jerry Phuc Ngo’23 became interested in computer programming and coding as a ninth grader. Luckily, his specialized high school in Vietnam had a computer science major. Three years later, his studies of competitive programming qualified him for the country’s Olympiad in Informatics.

When it came time to apply for college, Jerry favored small colleges over research universities. When a college counselor suggested Beloit College, he was attracted by both its small, beautiful campus and course variety.

Did anything surprise him when he arrived in Beloit?

“The campus was even more beautiful than I expected, with its greenery and topography. Plus, although I wasn’t surprised that people were welcoming during orientation, I was pleased afterward to find that everyone at Beloit seemed to be extremely supportive and kind.”

Although a larger university would have offered more robust programs in mathematics and computer science, studying the subjects at Beloit had its advantages.

“I’ve had a lot of flexibility to choose courses within my majors. Plus, I have the luxury of taking courses in other departments. As an example, I am in my second year of studying Chinese. My friends who study computer science at larger universities can’t do that.”

At Beloit, he also found faculty willing to work with him outside the classroom.

“When I told faculty in my first year about my interests, they began teaching me how to do research. Professor Mehmet Dik was the first one who forced me to go out of my comfort zone and start doing research. The confidence I gained from the very first project resulted in another two special projects during the spring semester of my freshman year.”

The attention from faculty carried over into the summer. The late Prof. Ranjan Roy taught Jerry mathematics remotely during the COVID lockdown, helping to strengthen the reasoning and conceptual skills needed for computer science.

In addition to studying theoretical math, he decided to explore different areas of computer science and math, including computer vision, a field of artificial intelligence that trains computers to interpret and understand the visual world.  He also taught himself machine learning, the study of using computer algorithms that can improve automatically through experience and data.

“During the winter break, I was able to work on two special projects, one with professor Eyad Haj Said and a second with professor Donghoon Kwon. Those projects were important turning points. They helped me discover my passion.”

Jerry (at right) with fellow researches and the lab PI at MIT Jerry (at right) with fellow researches and the lab PI at MITJerry’s studies paid off; he was accepted into the MIT Summer Research Program. He spent the summer after his sophomore year engaged in research in a MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory lab focused on theoretical machine learning, 

Jerry’s MIT research did not end after two months. Instead, a different MIT lab asked him to do research remotely during his junior year.

“My research attempts to determine whether machine learning can capture cognitive concepts such as emotions associated with colors. The idea is to analyze the robustness of a current large deep learning model, using the presence of cognitive science as a metric. We are interested in getting artificial intelligence closer to how humans think and feel.”

His experience in the math and computer science departments at Beloit had taught him to ask faculty about their work and see how he might get involved in it.

“I was one of the few students in our group of 78 who was asked to stay on to do research during the academic year. Students from more prestigious universities such as Columbia, Stanford, and Yale hadn’t learned how to be proactive, so missed out on the opportunity.”

What’s next for Jerry? He sees research in his future, whether he first pursues a second research experience at another university, or gets hired on by a lab in industry. And graduate school will follow.

“If you are interested in doing research, start talking with faculty about opportunities in your first year. Faculty may not talk about research during class, but if you seek them out, they will, and you’ll benefit enormously.”

By: Elizabeth Brewer
November 16, 2021

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