Student Highlight: Freda Shi

Third-year PhD student Freda Shi’s interest in computer science started in high school, when she participated in an informatics olympiad. “I found programming to be very interesting,” said Shi. “And from there, I went on to study computer science in undergrad, and then decided to pursue a PhD.”

Freda is originally from China, and earned her B.S. Degree from Peking University, where she completed her undergraduate thesis with Prof. Junfeng Hu. Her research interests are in computational linguistics and natural language processing (NLP). She is particularly interested in the structure of natural language and unsupervised learning methods. At TTIC, she is supervised by Professors Karen Livescu and Kevin Gimpel.

Natural language processing refers to the relationship between computers and human language. For example, a computer being able to “read” a book or document and understand not only the dictionary definition of the words being used, but the context in which the words are used as well. Unsupervised learning is when a computer uses an algorithm to recognize patterns in data without human assistance.

Currently, she is working on unsupervised syntactic parsing, and some unsupervised learning research related to NLP. “My research lies between linguistics and computer science. On the one hand, I use computer technologies to enable machines to understand that bridge, and on the other hand, I help people better understand language with the help of computer technologies,” said Shi.

Unsupervised syntactic parsing aims to help computers understand the syntax of a given language without the need of a “treebank” - a collection of sentence diagrams, or “trees,” that represent standard linguistic structures. Similarly, unsupervised learning helps computers understand data with little to no human assistance.

Shi chose to pursue her PhD at TTIC not only for the academic resources, but also for the community. “I feel like TTIC is the warmest environment for doing research. There is no limit on research projects, and the advisors are very supportive. All of them are great,” said Shi.

In her free time, Freda is involved with the “Women at TTIC” group. “Everyone here is very friendly, and I feel like I’m included. We have normal activities, like quarterly lunches, and this year we are planning some outdoor activities. We provide opportunities for women at TTIC to talk about research, and stuff that’s not relevant to research,” said Shi. Activities have moved online for the time being, due to COVID-19 precautions.

Freda has also enjoyed participating in the annual TTIC Student Workshop and served on the 2020 Organizing Committee. “It provides a good opportunity for us to practice presenting our research. It’s a lot of fun to see everyone’s posters,” said Shi. This year’s workshop will be in late April.