In this Q&A Dr. Chen tells us about her PhD project, her advice for students just starting their CSE journey and what’s ahead in her new role.

PhD degree and year:  Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science and Engineering, 2020
PhD project title: Multi-modal Human Behavior Understanding
Current role and organisation: Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science at Aalborg University, Denmark

What led you to study Computer Science?

Before studying at UNSW, I graduated from telecommunications engineering. I didn’t realise the appeal of computer science until my final year of undergraduate studies. Programming was initially a struggle, but the most frustrating part was also the most rewarding. When a problem was solved, the feeling was unnameable! So, when I had a chance to change my major, I chose computer science with no hesitation.

What was your PhD project about? What were the outcomes of your research?

My PhD project was about sensor-based human activity recognition. It is a very fundamental study due to the vast proliferation of sensor devices and the Internet of Things. During my PhD, I completed a comprehensive survey summarising the challenges in the progress in this field and analysing how these challenges can be addressed. I also developed a few novel approaches which are effective in mitigating these challenges.

Can you tell us about your academic role since graduating?

I got a position as an assistant professor at the department of computer science at Aalborg University in Denmark. I haven’t started working yet, but I will be doing both teaching and research. I will have a wide range of research project options and will supervise Masters and PhD students.

I know that I will enjoy this role because there are many issues at the frontier of the field, and as an academic, I will get to help find solutions. It is thrilling to make even a small contribution to that.

What’s your favourite/fondest or most striking memory of studying at UNSW?

This question reminds me of my first research topic with my supervisor, Dr. Lina Yao. I was a rookie trying to solve a problem with an innovative and seemingly rational method, but the experiment results were not rational at all. 

I went to Lina to get some assistance and she spent a couple of hours with me, standing in her office drawing all over a whiteboard as we worked together to analyse the problem. She taught me to approach the problem as if I was debugging, a mindset that I continue to use today.

The method we were using ended up being abandoned as it proved to be theoretically unreliable, but it is a fond memory of my time at CSE!

What advice would you give to other students who are just starting their degree in Computer Science?

Time management is important and I would tell myself this if I could rewind time! With my experience now, my advice is to reduce a task into parts and create a deadline for each of these subtasks. When setting the deadline, you need to be realistic about how long each of these tasks will take.

What character traits/skills do you think are important for engineers to cultivate?

Engineers need to keep pace with the fast-changing world, but they also need to be critical thinkers and be creative. Critical thinking is necessary to pull out the key bits of information and discard the dregs. Creativity is what makes an engineer outstanding.