Chosen as UT CNS Commencement Student Speaker

I had the honor of speaking on behalf of the College of Natural Science’s graduating Astronomy, Chemistry, Computer Science, Mathematics, and Physics majors. A video is available, and below you’ll find an annotated version of the address.

Yours truly at the podium. Courtesy of Vivian Abagiu via CNS.

Good afternoon. Friends, family, faculty and staff: thank you for being here. We would not have made it this far if it were not for your support.

Students; when you applied to graduate, you had to verify that your degree audit was in order. Maybe you spent some time looking at the long list of classes you’ve taken, and maybe you—like me—wondered where the years had gone. As a peer, I don’t have much wisdom to share, but I will share a couple vignettes that I hope remind you of some of our shared experiences.

Early in my first semester, a professor ran a poll asking what our post-graduation plans were. It was a science class in a big auditorium in Welch, filled with bright students, and two thirds of those bright students said that they intended to go to medical or graduate school. I was in the minority. Being self-assured in my industry-bound trajectory, I was confident that this was not my path. Of course, that changed.

You too have changed. Maybe you thought one way about your future, and now you think differently. Maybe you switched majors, maybe you joined natural sciences later in your time at UT. Maybe you disliked the canoe sculpture, but it’s actually started to grow on you. What was it that spurred your change?

For me, it was the Freshman Research Initiative. In my second semester, I joined the autonomous robotics stream. I didn’t have a particular interest in the field, but Matteo Leonetti, the research educator, gave a strong case for why we should care about artificial intelligence. More than anything else, I found his investment and passion persuasive. So though I hadn’t planned to, I stayed with the stream. Matteo helped me find an interest.

When Matteo left to take a faculty post, I began to work with his successor, Jivko Sinapov. I recall discussing my interests with him, and he helped me put them into context, pointing me towards papers from a young professor at the University of Washington. I remember that he even made sure I was able to spell her name correctly to look her up. It was a good recommendation. Next semester, almost a two years after I first learned about her, I’ll join her group as a Doctoral student, working to make robots that anyone can teach to accomplish useful tasks. So, Jivko helped me find a direction. Clearly, the program and professors had a large impact on me.

This college, this university, is filled with high quality people, and I’m sure that you have benefited from their instruction, their expertise, and their guidance as well. Whether you measure it by number of lives saved, number of citations, or number of quotes in the New York Times, our professors give us a model for how to be forward thinkers and upstanding people. If we ever think we have nothing left to achieve, we can look to them.

(And if we ever think we can’t have possibly failed worse, just remember the Speedway bricks.)

Of course, it wasn’t all about professors. We’ve spent the vast majority of our time with each other. Last year, I went to hear a friend present their thesis. It was excellent, and they’ve since graduated, but I remember how I felt seeing them then. I felt proud, proud to be at a place where students were doing such good work, and, overwhelmingly, I felt inspired to live up to the standard they set. I felt energized. It’s a feeling I’ve had again and again these past weeks, whether it was while seeing my fellow Polymathic Scholars finish their research, or talking to friends about their org events or hearing people’s post-graduation aspirations.

I hope you realize that—like my friend did for me—you too have inspired others. Think about all the times you worked through the night on an assignment together. Think about all the times you supported each other when that turned out to not be enough. Think of your time as an undergraduate teaching assistant or peer mentor. Think of the organizations you’ve started or sustained. Think of the impact of your service and leadership. Think of all of it. You taught and you learned from one another. You animated each other and this campus.

This—all of this—is where the years went. It may not be obvious for each of us—our blood didn’t turn orange—but we have all been shaped by this university. It’s pointed us towards the problems that matter, and helped sharpen our knowledge and abilities towards their resolution. It’s connected us with each other, and with others graduated and yet to graduate. Whether your near future contains classes, work, time off or something else, know that UT has given you an incredible jumpstart.

Congratulations, class of 2018.

Named a Dean's Honored Graduate


Dean’s Honored Graduate is the highest honor awarded to graduating seniors in the College of Natural Sciences. It is restricted to fewer than one percent of the graduating class of the college during an academic year. Dean’s Honored Graduates are nominated by departments and then selected by vote of a faculty committee. Factors considered in the voting are excellence in the classroom as well as substantial achievement in scientific research, an independent intellectual pursuit, or exceptional service and leadership to the college and university.

Don't Require Official GRE Scores

From ETS’s guidelines on how institutions should use GRE scores (italics are mine):

Accept Only Official GRE Score Reports
The only official reports of GRE scores are those issued by ETS and sent directly to approved institutions and organizations designated by the test takers and to vendors the score recipients might designate to process the scores they receive. Scores obtained from other sources should not be accepted. If there is a question about the authenticity of a score report, the question should be referred to ETS. ETS will verify whether an official report was issued and the accuracy of the scores.


Universities already accept unofficial transcripts from applicants. They only collect an official copy when a student enrolls. It’s kind of wild to think that you don’t need verifiable documentation attesting to your institution, degree program, or grades, but you need official test scores.

Don’t require official score reports for applications. It’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and its one more thing that can arrive late or not be sent or otherwise muck up the admissions timeline. Accept self-reported scores, then gather an official report as a condition of admission.

Named Honorable Mention for CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award

This award program recognizes undergraduate students in North American colleges and universities who show outstanding potential in an area of computing research. The award is primarily about research.

Good year for UTCS. Departments each get to nominate four students. Three of us received honorable mentions and the fourth won the award.

Past UTCS recipients include Yuqian Jiang (HM 2016) and Franziska Roesner (Finalist 2008).

Austin Villa@Home takes 3rd at RoboCup 2017

RoboCup is an international scientific initiative with the goal to advance the state of the art of intelligent robots through competitions. […] Robots were tasked with things like, unpacking groceries, setting/cleaning a table, recognizing and interacting with people in the environment.

UT hasn’t entered an @Home league in a decade.

The UT Austin Villa team was the only US team to advance to the second stage of the competition.

A good first effort.

First Conference: AAAI 2017

Jivko giving the poster spotlight for Automatic Curriculum Graph Generation for Reinforcement Learning Agents.

I attended AAAI-17 in San Fransisco last month, my first academic conference. I went in with only a vague idea of what the week would be like. Every conference is different, but my experience might help you set your expectations and better prepare.


The first two days were wholly dedicated to four-hour, lecture-style “tutorials.” Each was led by two or three researchers who had signficant experience with some subtopic, like logic programming or optimization. There was a good range of topics, and I appreciated the chance to get exposed to ideas from across the field. You could ask questions at any time, and the presenters were prepared and enthusiastic. Unfortunately attendance was pretty light, likely because they were scheduled against a number of industry-sponsored events. Also, I imagine late students or established researchers grow jaded to the value of sitting in classes for a weekend.

In particular, I enjoyed Interactive Machine Learning and Paper of the Future. Both covered topics that aren’t accessible via coursework at UT.

Technical Sessions

The meat of the conference was the technical sessions. AAAI has tracks for just about any AI subdiscipline, so the four weekdays of the conference were packed with a hodge-podge of one and half hour long blocks of thematically-related talks from authors. A lot of these were pretty bad. Many speakers tried to fit too much information into their 15 minutes or focused on definitions and minutia that weren’t essential to the core result of their work. Though ostensibly these presentations are about the work that was done, they must also sell the audience on reading the paper so they can learn more and cite it in the future. The best presentations were faithful to the work, but also made a clear case for why the audience should take the time to look more carefully at the paper later.


Me, Rishi and Jivko in front of our poster. Thanks for the photo, Shiqi.

The format changes from year to year, but this year all papers were assigned to either a talk (to occur in a technical session) or a poster. Every day, fifty or so posters were set up in a ballroom, available for viewing starting at six in the evening. The organizers arranged to have dinner (and amazing desserts) served, so these showings had a lot of traffic. Some people were in browse-only mode, reading titles and abstracts, maybe taking a photo of a poster with their phone. Others would ask for a walkthrough, interjecting with questions or comments. These usually lasted five to ten minutes.

Posters designs ranged from “enlarged version of the paper” to “illustrated companion.” Some of the text heavy ones were well executed, but overall I felt like the simpler posters tended to be more successful. Unlike the technical session, there was plenty of time to discuss the work in great depth–but the vast majority of the passersby were there for a pitch, not a lecture. Having good supporting graphics and charts for this audience is more important than including every last detail. As a bonus, nice figures are magnetic. We got a number of comments from people that our eye-catching diagrams were the reason they stopped to talk to us.

Student abstract posters were mixed in every evening. These were largely from undergraduates or early graduate students, and showed work in progress. I didn’t even know this type of submission existed, but they seem quite common at most conferences.

Poster sessions were also the best schmoozing/networking part of the day. People would stand off to the side of the ballroom while they ate, and it was easy to strike up conversation. It’s too soon to tell, but I feel like meeting people like this was the most valuable thing I did at the conference.

Other Activities

Each morning and evening, distinguished researchers gave invited talks on their work. These were typically fairly accessible and interesting, and much more polished than the technical session presentations happening.

There were a number of industry talks, though most of these were just thinly veiled recruiting presentations with little technical value.

The career fair was great because all of the companies there were interested in recruiting people with exactly the attendees’ background. This is a little unusual if you’re used to general university fairs where the recruiters probably only have a faint idea of whatever your research topic is and little inclination to hear about it.

The Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence (IAAI) conference was colocated with AAAI this year, and a standard registration was good for both. There were a lot of sessions where researchers from universities and companies alike showed off impressive practical work.

There were a few student activities throughout the conference. I got to eat lunch with Sven Koenig through Lunch With a Fellow, and I met lots of impressive students (including many more undergrads than I was expecting) at the student reception.

The City

After the conference, I had a couple of days to see the city. I did a bunch of touristy things (Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, California Academy of Sciences, Chinatown). It was also cool to visit Union Square (Uniqlo!) and see all of the landmarks that crop up in conversations about San Francisco. We managed fairly well even without much advanced planning, but it may not be so easy in other places.

Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park