2020 Grad Spotlight: Valerie Chen

Departments: Computer Science

For commencement week, we’re featuring some of the students from the SEAS Class of 2020. Today, we feature Valerie Chen, who majored in Computer Science.

What are your plans after graduation? 

Starting this fall, I will be a Ph.D. student in the Machine Learning department in the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science. I spent last summer at Carnegie Mellon, and I really liked the research environment there. Having been at a place like Yale, which is really interdisciplinary and great for seeing diverse perspectives, it felt like grad school was the time to focus on computer science and dive deep into the research aspect of that. 

What are you studying there?

It’s something I’d been very interested in as an undergraduate, which is the influence of artificial intelligence and machine learning and their larger implications. Specifically, I am interested in issues of interpretability and explainability of seemingly black-box machine learning models.

Currently, artificial intelligence and machine learning are buzz words that are widely used in industry - Facebook and Google use them in a number of products. But they’re also being used in systems that can determine how your life goes, for instance, who can get loans, or what type of people can get bail, or it can determine criminal sentencing. And those are things where it’s not just deciding what shows up on your newsfeed on Facebook, but real concrete decisions that could influence how your life will go for the next five or 10 years. So the question is how can you explain how decisions are being made by machine learning models in a more formal, less ad-hoc manner? It is an interesting research question on the technical end that also has greater implications to society. 

When you came to Yale, did you expect to take this direction of study?

I came to Yale as a computer science major, so in a sense that hasn’t changed, but I think I wasn't sure of what I wanted to do at first. I wasn't even sure I wanted to do research and get a Ph.D. so I spent one summer doing software engineering - the pay is great, as many people know, but I’m not as much of a product-driven person. I’m more of an ideas-driven person, so I found research is a better fit for me.

You co-authored a number of published studies while an undergraduate here.

I really appreciate the professors that I worked with at Yale in terms of giving me flexibility on what I wanted to work on and to what extent. For example, I worked extensively with Prof. Zhong Shao, and he was super supportive, so I really appreciated the room to grow. 

Do you have any advice for incoming students?

I think Yale can be overwhelming in the sense that there are so many options out there - you can double major, and some people might triple major! So I think there’s a lot of opportunity to explore, but I also encourage people to, once you know what you want to do, to really dive deep into that because there are a lot of resources at Yale that maybe other schools don’t have, and make the most of that while you’re here. And for people who are interested in research, get started on that early because there’s definitely a learning curve and you’re probably not sure that the first research area you get into is exactly the one you want to go in the future - so getting started early gives you a lot more time to explore.