Computer science is for anyone!

Emily Ip
Emily Ip
Computer Science With Speech and Language Processing MSc
This is Emily and she is a Computer Science graduate and the winner of the prestigous Fretwell-Downing Prize who is now doing her PhD at Trinity College, Dublin. Here we ask her why she chose Sheffield and how and why she made the leap from studying social sciences to Computer Science.
Emily Ip

Why did you want to do an MSc in Computer Science? Especially since you started off in social sciences - did someone influence you?

I’m very lucky to have a twin brother, Brandon, and grateful that his decision to study computer engineering inspired me to embark on my own journey. We started our bachelor’s degrees at the same time and ventured into new academic territories, bouncing ideas back and forth about all the new things we were learning in the first year or two of our undergraduate careers. It made me curious about his world in computer engineering and how seemingly far it felt from what I was studying, but little did I know it had sparked something in me.

I was first exposed to the intersection of linguistics and computer science a couple of years into my undergraduate career at Montclair State University in New Jersey, USA. Since I double majored in Linguistics and Spanish, I was able to see this intersection from a couple of different perspectives. Following all the conversations I had with Brandon, I was equal parts thrilled and anxious when the Linguistics Department announced a new concentration in language engineering in response to the growing market demands in computer and information technologies (in hindsight, a very timely addition!). Although I was anxious about how difficult it would be for me, I decided to add the concentration to my linguistics major anyway and see what I could learn from it.

In the language engineering concentration, I took classes in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and computational linguistics, where I learned about how so much of our current technologies in society and social media employ tasks in NLP. From the other perspective in my Spanish major, my focus was on translation studies, so I also took coursework in machine translation and computer-assisted translation tools. Both perspectives gave me exposure to the booming technical side of linguistics and how much I could enhance my skillset and capabilities as a linguist by learning more about computer science.

Following graduation from Montclair State, I worked at TransPerfect in New York City and utilized machine translation engines in practice. This later strengthened my conviction to go to the next level and try for an MSc in Computer Science, and I found the MSc programme at Sheffield to be the perfect fit.

What has been the highlight of your educational journey so far?

The highlight of my educational journey so far has been learning and researching from a very interdisciplinary position. To this day, I still draw upon experiences I had as an undergraduate doing psycholinguistics research and Spanish translation/sociolinguistics work, now that I’m doing my PhD in the computational neurophysiology of dialogue. I love pulling insight from other fields into discussions and allowing them to inform and guide the direction of my exploration into projects. I feel unbelievably lucky to call myself a linguist, computer scientist, and now a neuroscientist in my line of work. What’s more is that before all of this, I was a classical musician planning to study music therapy, and my shift to linguistics has since redirected my focus. The opportunity to do my PhD at Trinity College Dublin in the Di Liberto-lab has allowed me to meld not only my experience as a linguist and computer scientist in my projects, but also my background as a musician. I get to study both music and speech perception from a neurophysiological perspective, and I owe all my thanks to the people who have believed in me and given me the chance to learn from them and getting me where I am today.

Emily Ip Peace Gardens

What are your ambitions for the future when you finish up at Trinity?

After I finish up at Trinity, I’d like to continue my research career either in industry or continuing in academia through postdoc positions. There are other labs throughout the world doing exciting research within my field, so if opportunities arise in the future to travel and do more research elsewhere, I’d love to pursue those!

What’s your favourite memory of Sheffield?

It’s hard to nail down one! I have to say my favorite moments in Sheffield include my interactions with the Department of Computer Science’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Speech and Language Technologies. Learning from other PhD candidates and deepening connections with other colleagues in the department were extremely formative parts of my development as a computer scientist, and without their patience and grace in comforting me when things became challenging, I would not have crossed the finish line.

Another component to my year in Sheffield was the fact that my studies at the University were generously supported by the Fulbright US-UK Commission. To this end, I had a cohort of nearly 50 other American Fulbright scholars in the UK with me during my year in Sheffield who gave me so much support throughout the journey, from figuring out how to open a UK bank account during the first few weeks to eventually attending each other’s graduations at the end of our programs. Some of my most fond memories of Sheffield were visits to and from other Fulbrighters in the area and exploring each others’ cities. In the end, it was very special to have Fulbright organize their End-of-Year Conference at the University of Sheffield and to have all the scholars on my stomping grounds for a few days.

Other favorite memories in Sheffield include alpaca trekking at Holly Hagg, going to a Salsa in the Square event in Leopold Square, and seeing one of my favorite artists, James Bay, performing at our local Leadmill!

What’s the best thing about being a computer scientist?

For me, the best thing about being a computer scientist is how it makes other domains and fields of research more accessible for exploration. What I mean by that is, you can use so many tools in computer science in many different industries and research areas. My initial interest in computer science started in and around machine translation engines from my position as Project Coordinator at TransPerfect, but since then I’ve worked with state-of-the-art language models and transformers such as BERT and GPT in my Master’s dissertation in the clinical domain, particularly on understanding language cues of Alzheimer’s dementia. Now in my PhD, my projects explore speech and music perception through computational neuroscience. This could have later applications from speech and language technologies to education and clinical settings, which are super exciting to me. I’ve met so many accomplished and insightful people along the way, and collaborating with a diverse spread of researchers and scientists makes this a role that I love being in everyday!

What advice would you give to a woman considering studying computer science?

Computer science is for anyone! I think we're in a really, really great place in time. Here in Sheffield there are societies and organisations within the Department, specifically for women in computer science. There are people who are happy to listen, share their ideas and make you feel included. Maybe whereas in the past there wasn't that sort of space. So now is the time - and I would say just go for it.

We interviewed Emily in March 2023.

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