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Allen School’s Jenny Liang combines compassion with technology for social good

Jenny Liang

Our latest Allen School student spotlight features Jenny Liang, a Kenmore, Washington native and recent UW graduate who majored in computer science and informatics. Liang was named among the Husky 100 and earned the Allen School’s Undergraduate Service Award for her leadership, compassion, and focus on developing technology for social good in her work with the Information and Communication Technology for Development Lab (ICTD). 

This summer, Liang started an internship at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) after being awarded the 2020 Allen AI Outstanding Engineer Scholarship for Women and Underrepresented Minorities. The scholarship is designed to encourage diversity and equity in the field of artificial intelligence while strengthening the connection between academic and industry research. She previously held internships at Microsoft, Apple and Uber.

Allen School: Congratulations on the AI2 Scholarship! What makes this scholarship special, and who should apply?

Jenny Liang: The AI2 scholarship is an opportunity for folks in underrepresented communities in technology. Its aim is to combat the lack of representation currently seen in the tech industry and academia. As part of the scholarship, students receive one year of tuition covered by AI2 along with an internship. The winners have coincidentally been women in the past couple of years, but I’d like to emphasize that anyone who identifies with any underrepresented identity is qualified to apply. I would encourage any Allen School student who belongs to any minoritized identity to take advantage of this opportunity. 

Allen School: How has the experience been? 

JL: It’s been a positive career-changing experience, and my time at AI2 has been really awesome so far. I currently work on the MOSAIC team headed by the Allen School’s own Yejin Choi, where I’m building a research demo using cutting-edge computer vision and natural language processing (NLP) models. The exciting thing is it’ll be released soon to the public. I’m also dabbling with conducting my own research on building NLP models to detect social bias in language, as well as interpreting the predictions of these models. The goal of this is to illuminate how and why these models behave the way they do, and whether they can be improved to be more than just black boxes that predict complex phenomena in natural language. This provides more context in how these models interact with society, which ultimately has real-life consequences on people. Both the engineering and research aspects of this internship are all very new and challenging experiences for me. It’s been my first time working with computer vision and NLP deep learning models, which has given me a new perspective into challenges that developers face. I feel like this has pushed me to learn and adapt as a budding researcher, and provided me with lots of tools and skill sets I’ll be using in the future.

Allen School: What initially interested you in computer science and informatics? 

JL: At the time of choosing my major, I loved software engineering, and I still do. This meant I was interested in both the theoretical and applications of technology. The theory is so important to understand what makes technology systems work and why. But, understanding how technologies are applied is equally important in building software that is usable and performant and serves people in fair and ethical ways. To me, the Allen School taught me the theoretical foundations of computer science, while the iSchool provided the ability to build technology applications. Being in both CSE and INFO has allowed me to become a well-rounded technologist, where I can both build technologies quickly but also understand the complicated theoretical underpinnings of these systems.

Allen School: You have had a lot of industry experience with your internships. Do you plan to continue on that path to a career in industry?

JL: In the past year, I’ve decided to switch to academia after working in the industry. So I am applying to Ph.D. programs this fall. I’ve always enjoyed software engineering, but after a while, I found the engineering work I did in industry personally unfulfilling since I wanted to learn the fundamental properties of what makes software “good” or “bad” and why, especially as software scales. I didn’t think my trajectory in industry would quite allow me to gain that expertise because of its focus on building new technologies. Thanks to some outstanding and involved mentorship from iSchool professor Amy Ko, postdoc Spencer Sevilla in the Allen School’s ICTD Lab, and AI2 researchers Chandra Bhagavatula and Swabha Swayamdipta, I’ve been slowly convinced that academia is the space for me to do that.

Allen School: What is the best thing about being a student in the Allen School?

JL: To me, the best thing is the breadth of high-quality opportunities this school has to offer. I’m really grateful and feel so privileged for the opportunities I’ve been given because I’m in CSE. For the past five years, I’ve known I wanted to work with technology after I taught myself to code my freshman year and totally loved it. What has not been clear is how and to what capacity I’d like to do that. Because of the many opportunities the Allen School provides, I’ve really been able to find my own fulfilling niche in tech. I’m really fortunate to have developed my career as a software engineer, but also quickly pivot to a career in academia. Due to the school’s industry connections, I’ve been able to work on the world’s largest technology systems and with the best engineers; thanks to the opportunities I’ve had to do undergraduate research, serve as a TA, and take graduate-level courses, I’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to be a Ph.D. student and really enjoyed it. Most importantly, though, my connections with the school’s faculty and staff have supported so much of my growth, and I would be nowhere without them.

Allen School: What interested you in becoming a member of the Allen School’s Student Advisory Council and continuing to serve in it? 

JL: Working with the SAC has been important to my CSE experience. I struggled a lot my first several years at UW with my mental health, which also compromised my academics for a while. Without the support of my friends and professors in the Allen School, I would not be the same person I am today. Being involved with SAC is my way of giving back to the community that supported me, as well as deriving meaning from my painful experiences. Because I understand what it’s like to struggle while being a CSE student, I’m committed to finding the ways in which CSE as a system could improve in supporting the undergraduate experience and advocating for change.

I’ve stayed with SAC because through listening to my peers’ diverse experiences and struggles, I’ve realized this work really matters. Although change can be slow-going and allyship is hard, the work we do allows students to be more successful academically, builds community within the Allen School, and creates a welcoming environment where everyone can thrive. This has been especially important in response to the tumultuous current events, and I’m really proud of how all the other student groups are committed to this mission too.

Thank you for all that you’ve done for the Allen School and UW community, Jenny — and good luck with those grad school applications!