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Announcing the 2022 PhD Fellows

Headshots of Flora Tasse, Minsuk Kahng and Nicolas Papernot
Flora Tasse, Minsuk Kahng & Nicolas Papernot

In 2009, Google created the PhD Fellowship Program to recognize and support graduate students who are doing exceptional research in Computer Science and related fields, and who are poised to shape the future of technology. Since our first awardee cohort 13 years ago, these PhD Fellowships have helped support 654 graduate students from around the world across Africa, Australia & New Zealand, East Asia, Europe, India, North America and Southeast Asia.

Over the past 14 award cycles, our PhD Fellows have made some incredible contributions to their fields, and today we're checking in with three of our past alumni.

  • Flora Tasse — Head of CV/AR Research at Streem specializing in AI applied to Computer Graphics and Vision problems faced in AR/VR
  • Minsuk Kahng — Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Oregon State University whose research focuses on designing and developing novel visual analytics tools for people to interpret and interact with machine learning systems that use massive datasets
  • Nicolas Papernot — Assistant Professor of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Toronto whose research interests span the security and privacy of machine learning

What was your motivation to apply to the program?

Flora: I started my PhD with the mission to seize every opportunity to surround myself with the best in the field and broaden my horizons. I was on the lookout for Fellowships that could provide that, and help me make an impact in my area of research. When I heard about the Google PhD Fellowship, I was impressed with all the support that went well beyond the financial. I was initially hesitant to apply because it is such a prestigious program. Thankfully, I did submit my application and it is one the best things I have ever done for my career.

Minsuk: Receiving a Google PhD Fellowship is a great honor for computer science PhD students. I deeply appreciated that Google recognized my research. I was particularly interested in applying for Google’s Fellowship program because Google researchers have been actively conducting research on human-centered approaches to Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is something I’m passionate about. The program provided me with an exciting opportunity to interact with them.

Nicolas: At the time, there were very few people working on my research topic (adversarial examples) so I wanted to apply to the Google Fellowship to find mentors and colleagues to discuss my ideas with. The Fellowship was a great accelerator for my research because it allowed me to meet with a number of people who ended up shaping my understanding of machine learning. This increased the pace of my research and led me to discover new areas of research that I am passionate about.

What impact did the Google PhD Fellowship have on your career trajectory and on technology?

Flora: The Google PhD Fellowship was a turning point in my career. It not only validated the research work I was doing, but also gave me visibility and support that opened so many doors. Through this experience, I formed valuable collaborations and expanded my professional network which proved fruitful in building my career. Thanks to my internship at Google Zurich, I gained valuable insights into innovation and the productization of research. I currently apply my research skills at Streem, where we are making the phone's camera intelligent. Acquired by Streem, my start-up Selerio was building AI agents that could understand images/videos and augment them with relevant interactive objects. This technology made a tangible difference in remote collaboration between experts and consumers to solve product issues which was particularly impactful at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Minsuk: The Fellowship has allowed me to have a wonderful career. Thanks to invaluable advice from my mentors at Google, I completed my PhD with a Dissertation Award from Georgia Tech. I have recently decided to join Google’s People + AI Research (PAIR) team after working as faculty for three years. I have been developing data visualization tools for people to interpret AI systems. Along with my colleagues at Google I’ve created and open-sourced GAN Lab, an interactive tool for people to learn the inner-workings of deep learning models. It significantly broadens people's education access to AI, as learners can use it just with their browsers without the need for specialized backend. I look forward to pursuing research that can help people everywhere.

Nicolas: The Google PhD Fellowship gave me a lot of freedom to pursue my own research ideas, spend time developing the CleverHans library, and collaborate with researchers at different universities and in other research communities. The opportunities I've had to work on differential privacy and machine learning with leading researchers at Google Brain were transformative to my career, and fundamental to bootstrapping my academic career at the University of Toronto and Vector Institute. During the program, I was able to implement privacy-preserving algorithms that are now used by product teams with lots of users. This was a great opportunity to have an immediate impact on technology. More generally, my research is by design seeking to understand the limitations of machine learning so that society can better trust it.

What advice do you have for current and future Google PhD Fellows?

Flora: Take advantage of the opportunities it provides, apply to Google internships, go to more conferences, collaborate and meet PhD Fellows in other fields. By becoming a Google PhD Fellow, you are joining a community of incredibly talented researchers and gaining influential mentors. As for the PhD, you will still go through the ups and downs of doctoral research. But it will be much easier as a Fellow. Stay the course. If you are an undergraduate considering a PhD pathway, invest energy and time in figuring out if there is a problem or a field that you care enough about to dedicate many years of your life to it.

Minsuk: My advice is to look for opportunities to cross the boundaries between disciplines. My work was made possible by collaborating with people across multiple research areas, such as information visualization, machine learning, human-computer interaction and databases. While research from different fields might seem unrelated at first, combinations of ideas can create unique research opportunities. Before starting my PhD, I conducted research on making recommendation algorithms more accurate, but found myself being much more motivated by different flavors of research. This experience led me to find my research direction and vigorously pursue it in my PhD.

Nicolas: I recommend that you do not optimize for short term rewards (like publishing papers) but instead focus on solving the problems that you find the most interesting. Research is often a random process and it is hard to predict what work will have an impact, so optimizing for short term rewards can quickly remove the “fun” out of doing research. While an undergraduate student, you have many opportunities to learn about topics that are diverse and possibly far away from the topic you will eventually choose to work on if you start a PhD. This breadth of knowledge will not only make you a more interesting person but help you in your research, because the most interesting research questions are often the ones that require an interdisciplinary approach to find an answer.

Announcing the 2022 Google PhD Fellows

Since 2009, the Google PhD Fellows have represented some of the best and brightest computer science researchers from around the globe, and we’re honored to support them as they make their mark on the world. Congratulations to all of this year’s awardees! See the complete list of Google PhD Fellowship recipients for 2022.

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