Humans of SymSys: Richard Kahn


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

Where are you from? 

I grew up in Chicago and did my undergrad at Yale in Math & Philosophy. For the five years between undergrad and Stanford, I was working at Locus Analytics, an economic think tank / hedge fund / data analytics firm. Other SymSys folks have been interns there. Ask me about it!  

What's something cool you've worked on? 

My undergrad senior thesis was an argument for the Platonic existence of numbers. Not necessarily cool, but certainly out there.

What drew you to the SymSys MS program? 

It's more or less the only program of its kind that brings together all of my interests! And I figured that giving the West Coast a try made sense.

What are some of your initial impressions of Stanford? 

Besides the obvious things, it's definitely a more professional-oriented philosophy here than Yale. Professors and students alike are focused on how to make a difference in the non-academic world, which is exciting!

What kind of research are you hoping to do here?

I'd like to dip my hands into some more linguistics than I've previously done.  

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

Don't ever take a course you don't want to take. If it feels bad in the first week, trust your gut. College is too short.  

Coffee Chat: Chris Potts

Chris Potts, Professor of Linguistics and Computer Science, spoke with us on Tuesday morning about his research at the intersection of semantics and pragmatics, and machine learning. We chatted about a variety of topics from the departments and faculty outside of Stanford who take a computational approach to solving problems in semantics and pragmatics to the ongoing open question of which problems to solve next.  

Professor Potts's current research investigates what insights from formal semantics and pragmatics can do to advance the state of natural language processing (NLP), and what insights from computing can do to advance the state of formal semantics and pragmatics. 

He also teaches at the undergraduate level about formal semantics and pragmatics, and at the graduate level about natural language understanding, and most recently, programming for linguists. He shared his enthusiasm for the latter class and his strong belief that anyone can be a programmer in our chat. 

Before joining the Departments of Linguistics and Computer Science and becoming the director of the Stanford Center for the Study of Language and Information, he was a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, where his thesis focused on the logic of conventional implicatures. When asked how he decides what to delve into next, he said while it is a hard problem, he most enjoys advising his students through the completion of projects that are interesting to them.

To learn more about Chris Potts, visit his website at

Written by Pratyusha Javangula

Coffee Chat: Mike Frank

Mike Frank, Associate Professor of Psychology, spoke with us on Friday about his research to do with language learning and social cognition in children, his thoughts on the ongoing debate between language as an innate faculty or one that is acquired via general-purpose learning mechanisms, and his assessment of the nature of the gap between machine learning and human cognition. 

Professor Frank's current research investigates questions of language learning in children, from a variety of perspectives ranging from word learning and its relationship to concept learning to pragmatic development and how children learn to participate in a conversation. In addition, he and his lab are collecting large datasets of children's speech in order to answer these questions. Finally, his research focuses on encouraging replication, reproducibility, and openness in the scientific community.  

He also teaches at the undergraduate level about human biology and developmental psychology, and at the graduate level about experimental methods. 

Before becoming the Principal Investigator of the Stanford Language and Cognition Lab, he was a graduate student at MIT under the tutelage of Edward Gibson. While there, he worked on a variety of problems from the development of the mental abacus in Canadian and Indian students to the native speakers of Piraha (a language with no words for numbers) to word learning as pragmatic inference. In our coffee chat, he explained that while he is glad he delved into a breadth of topics as a graduate student, he now employs a depth-first approach in order to meaningfully contribute to our understanding of the world. 

To learn more about Mike Frank, visit his website at

Written by Pratyusha Javangula

Humans of SymSys: Maika Isogawa


Maika Isogawa is a sophomore interested in AI. She was a Symbolic Systems Program Summer Research Intern in 2018.

Where are you from? 

I was born in Tokyo, Japan! I lived there until I was about 5, then my family moved to Minnesota. I spent the next few years traveling back and forth between the two.

You took a break from Stanford for a bit. What were you up to? 

I was a professional circus performer. I worked for a show called "Absinthe" by Spiegelworld, and "TOTEM" by Cirque Du Soleil. Both shows were touring, so I lived and worked in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Russia, and Brussels. 

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

When I was younger, I wanted to be an Astrophysicist. Then I came to Stanford thinking I would be a Physics Engineering major. After taking a leave of absence, I came back with a whole new set of interests and goals. Symsys offered the most breadth across all of the domains that I wanted to learn more about. My concentration is Artificial Intelligence. Not only is it a field that is rapidly expanding and innovative, but it also parallels the question of figuring out what we are as human beings, too. 

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

LINGUIST130A - Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics with Chris Potts. I think a professor can really be the difference between a student loving a class vs. hating it - Chris was incredible. Very personable, he kept the class really organized and all of the expectations were set up-front (a simple thing that we don't appreciate until we don't have it). The material was interesting too; it revealed a lot about natural language that we take for granted. NLP is a big question in AI right now too, so I felt like I was learning something that I would actually use in the future.

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

Be honest with yourself about what you're interested in. It's easy to pursue a major/field for ulterior reasons - maybe its for the promise of financial stability after graduation, maybe it's familial pressure... all valid reasons to pick one path over another. But your time in college will be so much more enjoyable if you're choosing the classes and the path that you actually want to do. 

What's something cool you've worked on? 

Over the summer,  I interned with the HCI department here at Stanford under Mark Whiting and Michael Bernstein. We were researching how teams fractured, using an online environment. In a group of 5 undergraduates, we really got to take initiative with the project: building the entire front-end/back-end of the platform, integrating it with various APIs, gathering data, and submitting a paper to a conference. The work was cool and interesting, but what stood out to me was the people I got to work with every day. Everyone was driven, smart, and so incredibly kind. It was a wonderful environment, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in this project.

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

Bio-inspired AI. There's actually a ton of new approaches and theories floating around the AI-world at the moment. Implementation is the toughest part, but I'm really excited to see what comes from new research.

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

ULTIMATE FRISBEE. LETS. GO. I play for Superfly, Stanford Women's Ultimate team. I tried out thinking that it would be a nice form of exercise, but instead it became some of my most cherished memories and closest friends at Stanford. Not only do I get to workout with incredibly talented, badass women, but ultimate has a huge community all over the Bay Area, and even around the world. Check us out at

Humans of SymSys: David Shacklette


David Shacklette is a new master’s student in Symbolic Systems. He previously studied a B.A. in philosophy at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Where are you from?

I’m from Des Plaines, Illinois.

What's something cool you've worked on? 

During my Junior year abroad at Pembroke College, Oxford, a professor that I worked closely with asked me to be an intern for the Ordered Universe Summer Access program, which focused on the interdisciplinary works of the medieval polymath, Robert Grosseteste. During this week-long experience, I was responsible for holding mock-tutorials for gifted high school students who were interested in applying to Oxford in the following year. It was a highly rewarding experience, and it was so cool to see how a group of bright young minds interpreted such an interdisciplinary topic.  

What drew you to the SymSys MS program? 

I have always been interested in the philosophical interpretation of traditionally non-philosophical disciplines, which led to a strong interest in philosophy of neuroscience. What drew me to the SymSys MS program was the unique opportunity to approach the philosophy of neuroscience in a highly interdisciplinary fashion, surrounded by an incredible community of faculty and students. 

What are some of your initial impressions of Stanford? 

I’m from around Chicago, so my initial impression of Stanford has to do mainly with the weather here-- it’s absolutely gorgeous. 

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

Take advantage of ALL of the resources that are available to you here. Don’t just be buried in your books 24/7. Go to that talk that you’re interested in, go to the beach for a weekend, join a band, do whatever you can do to become the best person you can be, not just the best academic (but also don’t fail out). 

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

The ethical and practical consequences of optogenetics.