Humans of SymSys: Lucy Li

Lucy is a SymSys graduate (‘18) and CS co-term (‘19). She has served as Vice President of SymSys Society for two years and is a recipient of the K. Jon Barwise Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Symbolic Systems Program. She is now off to pursue her PhD at Berkeley!


Where are you from?

I’m from St. Paul, MN.

How would you describe SymSys with one word?


You’ll be entering your PhD this coming fall — how has SymSys prepared you?

This is a great question! I’m starting my PhD at the School of Information at Berkeley. Like Symbolic Systems, the program is interdisciplinary. I’ll be working at the intersection of natural language processing (NLP) and computational social science.

SymSys prepared me for my PhD in many ways. My concentration was Natural Language, which means I took both linguistics and CS courses. At Stanford we’re really lucky that many of our NLP professors are also linguists. This type of environment allowed me to appreciate interdisciplinary thinking, and I approach every conversation with someone in a different field as a fun learning opportunity. The psychology courses I took as part of the major also combine wonderfully with my computer science background, because I’m interested in investigating social behaviors on a large scale (#bigdata).

What's one piece of advice you'd like to offer to younger students?

It’s important to figure out a brand for yourself, especially when you’re coming out of a program that can involve so many different paths. Also, it’s okay if your interests change. I changed my concentration twice during my undergrad, from Neurosciences to Cognitive Science before finally settling on Natural Language. Though I don’t really think about brains very often these days, I needed to take that journey to land where I am now. Also, talk to upperclassmen and older people who you could envision yourself becoming in the future.

Also, I misread this question because I provided three pieces of advice instead of one, oops.

What’s one experience / moment during you Stanford career you’ll never forget?

The past five years have been one amazing, long moment that I’ll never forget.

One memory that comes to mind is this one time I planned a surprise birthday party for a friend. His birthday is actually over the summer, so I chose a random day during the school year to throw the party. So, he was extra surprised when a mob of people stormed his room at midnight with music, cake, and screaming.

What groups or activities are you involved with at Stanford?

I’ve been in SymSys Society for three years. I’ve played a lot of random roles in this student group, like managing our social media presence, running a blog that features students and alumni, organizing bi-annual student-faculty dinners, and becoming famous for sending emails. I’ve been part of other Stanford student groups and activities as well, but I’ve found the best and most tight-knit community in this one.

Humans of SymSys: Darian Martos

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Darian is a senior in Symbolic Systems and one of the Advising Fellows for the 2018-2019 school year.

What drew you to SymSys? Why did you pick your current concentration?

What drew me to SymSys was its interdisciplinary aspects, of course! I had liked all my classes in high school and never really thought myself as just a "math nerd" or a "fuzzy," so I wanted to study something in college that combined all my interests into one fun major. I realized later on in college that thinking about cognitive processes, especially with respect to mathematical methods and applications of artificial intelligence, is fun to engage with especially when it comes to comparing AI to human cognition, and this is why I'm an AI concentration now!

Why did you decide to become an AF? 

I decided to become an AF because I love helping students out! I used to help my friends with course planning regularly, and loved perusing all the different courses offered as part of the major. I figured that being part of an awesome group of advising fellows and being paid to talk about courses or help students out seemed like too good of a gig to pass up.

What’s your favorite SymSys-related class that you’ve taken?

Right now, I'm in CS 224N taught by Chris Manning, and I think that is my favorite course that i've taken at Stanford. Close friends and colleagues know Chris Manning is my fav professor, just in that his research is so cutting edge and has shaped modern natural language processing. His course, 224N, is probably my favorite because all the research in the class is cutting-edge and deep learning is super cool to learn about! We did two projects recently on machine translation, and both projects made me realize that machine translation is probably my favorite subtask in AI/NLP, and is an inherently difficult problem that still requires further work to be done. Other than CS 224N, some other courses I usually recommend to all my friends as my favorites include CS 124, PSYCH 70, and LINGUIST 130A.

What's one piece of advice you'd like to offer to younger students?

Take time for yourself! Go off campus more often, I never believed in the Stanford bubble just because I will literally bike to Palo Alto or Mountain View, or take a train to San Francisco/San Jose just to spend time on myself. It can be stressful being a student, and I keep myself grounded by spending time away from the university when I'm able to. 

What's something cool you've worked on? 

Currently, as part of CS + Social Good project team, we are working on an application or Google extension that can detect fake information online and provide factually accurate sources. I'm working on the machine learning and information retrieval processes that are at the backend of the platform. Fake news detection is an important need that has to be addressed, especially with respect to government sources. If you're interested in joining my team for Spring quarter, feel free to reach out to me!

What (loosely) SymSys-related topic are you excited about right now?

As I mention above, I think machine translation is such a cool AI field and is something I'd want to keep up with. Otherwise, general NLP and reinforcement learning are AI-subfields that interest me. Outside of AI, SymSys-related topics that interest me include social psychology, human bias in cognition, cognitive heuristics, the mind and body connection, syntax, and semantics/pragmatics!

What other groups or activities are you involved with at Stanford?

I'm also involved with Stanford PASU (Stanford Pilipinx American Student Union), the Filipino/a/x-American group on campus focused on issues relating to our culture. I'm currently an FO of the organization and also work extensively in our Youth Leadership Conference that happens in Winter. I'm also part of the CS+Social Good project team as I described above.

Coffee Chat with Charlotte Cheng '04

Charlotte Cheng majored in Symbolic Systems as an undergrad and completed her M.A. in Elementary Education at Stanford School of Education. She is currently a curriculum product manager for Wonder Workshop, where she designs curriculum and products that help teachers use educational robots in the classroom.

Eric Zelikman ‘20 wrote the following recap of the coffee chat we had with Charlotte on February 13.

We met with Charlotte Cheng and we talked about how she had gotten involved with Wonder Workshop. Using scratch-like blocks and the iPad she brought, we played with coding two models of really adorable robots. We talked about what it's like being into EdTech at Stanford; in the past, apparently nobody had heard of it, and now, a lot of niches in the field are targeted. People in the field were there for really diverse reasons, and mostly everyone was involved in a different area of the space, having been involved with organizations focused on teaching music, language learning, learning more abstractly, etc. This inspired some discussion of the value that the "jack-of-all-trades" nature of SymSys can bring to someone not working directly on the technical side, especially in a more startup environment. We discussed community outreach, and how an increasingly large company can address the needs and interests of many groups of kids. We talked about the value of user-testing and how a lot of coding-teaching tech ends up producing products targeted at boys unintentionally, because young boys and girls have very different motivations for wanting to learn to code in the first place. From that, we also discussed how useful it was to have some actual experience as a teacher, both because it helps talk with teachers and to know what won't work. We also spent some time on opportunities, highlighting how useful the is, the class at Bing Nursery on child development, and a few education-focused groups on campus. At the end she suggested if anyone there was interested in interning with the company, they should reach out to her. Overall, it was a really positive experience and it was cool to see these really varied reasons for coming there to all kind of come together.

Humans of SymSys: Hang Jiang


Hang is a first year master’s student in SymSys.

Where are you from? 

I am from Wuhan, China. Prior to Stanford, I went to Emory University located in Atlanta, GA, where I finished my BS in CS and BA in Linguistics.

What's something cool you've worked on? 

I was a summer natural language processing intern at Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization to give standardized exams such as TOEFL and GRE. I developed a grammar error detection system based on machine and deep learning algorithms for preposition errors during my internship, which is used to assist raters in grading essays. As someone who used to be “tortured” by exams from the institute, I felt quite unreal to work there the whole time. :D 

What drew you to the SymSys MS program? 

The unique curriculum that bridges computer science and humanities really interests me. Specifically, I love the perspective that this program takes on artificial intelligence, which is more than just computation and is intrinsically interdisciplinary. 

What are some of your initial impressions of Stanford? 

A campus full of startup cultures. Definitely love the vibe here and enjoy talking to people about their plans.

What kind of research are you hoping to do here?

Natural language processing, computational linguistics, machine learning, and language learning. 

What's one piece of advice you'd like to offer to younger students?

Take fewer classes in your first quarter. I am glad that I did that and I was able to participate many activities and make new friends at Stanford.