Alumni Profile: Morgan Evans
Morgan Evans is an alumna of the 2016 REUSE program cohort. She is a graduate of Bard College, where she majored in Computer Science. Now a PhD student in the Software Engineering program here at Carnegie Mellon, Morgan spoke with us a bit about her journey and the research she is passionate about.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Morgan. Let’s start at the beginning: Tell us a bit about your undergrad background.
I went to a really small liberal arts college in Upstate New York called Bard College. It was just me and about 2,000 other students out in the middle of the woods; so it was definitely a different environment than CMU’s!
Although I graduated from Bard with a bachelors in computer science, I actually went into college thinking I was going to study classical vocal performance. Maybe two weeks into my first semester I realized that, despite the fact I’d been preparing--for what felt like my whole life--to pursue a career in music, I really wanted to try something new. I decided to take a course on object-oriented programming, and I ended up enjoying it so much that I changed my major to computer science. But I also kept singing in the Baroque ensemble for a few more semesters.
So what made you decide to try out research and how’d you find the REUSE program?
During the summer of my sophomore year, I was an intern at Cisco Systems in Silicon Valley. I wanted to experience industry work and, well, I learned from my friends who’s computer science programs had more than ten students, that everybody does summer internships to get ready to enter the job market after they graduate. But, I realized pretty quickly that it just wasn't for me.
So then junior year rolled around and that’s when “the future” started to feel more like a reality. I remember feeling relieved that I wasn’t one of few sopranos auditioning all over New York City. But I still didn’t know what I wanted to do or really what my options were. So I talked to friends and read blogs and eventually had the idea that academia was the opposite of industry. I applied to a ton of summer research programs. I found the CMU REUSE program during this search and it really resonated with me. To be 100% honest, I didn't have a clear definition of what it was that I was interested in researching. I had some inkling; I knew from doing some work in the Memory Dynamics Lab at Bard that I was interested in how humans acquire knowledge. I knew that I was interested in the HCI aspect - studying human relationships and how we interact with technology. But honestly, I just wasn't sure what my options were, what kind of research I could do that would excite me.
But after looking over the REUSE website - reading the project descriptions, exploring the faculty and their research - I was struck by the breadth of work being done. I struggled to find another REU program that fit the "interdisciplinary" moniker as much as the one in ISR did. I was convinced that, if I came to the REU program, I could kind of be in all the different places that I wanted to be at once.
Now, of course, it is really difficult to give folks a complete sense of the value of a program like REUSE in a few hundred words on a website. What valuable aspect of the program did you discover only after you’d begun doing research here at CMU?
Yeah, it's really tough to convey in its entirety. You can say on the website that "You'll have the chance to be mentored by top researchers" or "You'll work alongside a diverse group of student colleagues" but that doesn't really give you a sense of how powerful any of those elements of the program will be.
Once I got to CMU though, I was blown away. Right off the bat, I had the amazing mentorship of my graduate student mentor Jaspreet Bhatia. She really took me under her wing and helped me get grounded and off to a good start.
And, almost immediately, I felt like I really had ownership over the problem we were working on - from working on the abstract in week three to presenting our working at a conference in Beijing - I really felt like I owned that work.
One aspect that is really hard to capture in a few words is the community: the cohort that I was with was such an amazing group of students that I never would have imagined would randomly show up at Carnegie Mellon. We all had our unique stories, we all had our strengths. But we were all relatively naïve about research, so it really felt like an equal playing field coming in.
There is this amazing sense of community here in ISR that you start to experience from day-one - even among the REUSE students. My roommate during the program was working with the same faculty member as I was. And even though she had a different mentor, it never felt like we were competing with each other even though we were both juniors and, in a very different space, it could have felt like we were jockeying for a spot in Travis' lab after we graduated. But it didn't. The department has this feeling that, even though we’re all kind of doing our own thing, we're all working towards a similar goal.
So, during your time in the REUSE program you were working alongside Dr. Travis Breaux. Can you tell us a little bit more about the research you did?
I was working on was automated hyponymy extraction from privacy policies. I was looking at information type hyponymy defined in privacy policies - for example the hypernym could be "personal information" and it could be defined in a policy with the hyponyms “name, address, and phone number.”
Our goal was to develop a way to automatically extract all instances of information type hyponymy across several privacy policies and compare really how any number of these hypernyms are defined.
So, I was using tree regular expressions to match specific nodes in the body of these privacy policies using specific key words -- all in order to discern whether or not ambiguity or vagueness exists in policies.
We ended up publishing a workshop paper on it, which had been the goal I was working towards from the beginning of the summer. That workshop paper turned into a conference paper, “An Evaluation of Constituency-based Hyponymy Extraction from Privacy Policies”, that we presented at the IEEE International Requirements Engineering Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. And I actually ended up working with Travis remotely after I went back to Bard for my senior year, the work I did in the REUSE program became the backbone of my undergrad thesis!
Alright, so after you completed the REU and graduated from Bard, you decided to go for that PhD. And we were fortunate enough to have you come back to us now as a Software Engineering PhD student working under Travis once again. So, has your research focus shifted? What are you working on now?
So I'm still knee deep in privacy policies and hyponym relations. But I am interested a bit more in how users and stakeholders actually interpret hypernyms. That is to say that even if several privacy policies define a hypernym uniformly - how do the stakeholders, how do the users actually interpret them? How does the stakeholder's mental model, or the context of the word, influence the definition of what personal information is or isn't? So I’m definitely in the same space as I was in the REU, I’m just exploring different facets of ambiguity and privacy policies. Actually, I’m even taking another approach to automatically extracting information types from policy text using conditional random fields for named entity recognition.
Morgan, what advice do you have for anyone out there reading this right now who might be thinking about applying to the REUSE program?
Even if you have your doubts about whether you can get it: APPLY. Seriously, if you've landed here at the REU page. Thats a huge first step: being interested in research.
And the admissions committee does a really good job looking closely at every applicant. They aren't just looking for stellar grades or test scores - they're looking for someone who is evidently interested in the research process. They're looking for the student that is going to have a transformational experience.
There are so many faculty members doing different types of research. There is so much going on in this program that even if you aren't sure if you're a good fit, you should still apply. There is a really good chance that you fit in somewhere here. And the committee is really dedicated to finding those students who are going to get the most out of this program and putting them where they have the best chance of experiencing that value.
The other piece of advice that I'd give is for our international students. I know that a good portion of our funding for the program comes from the NSF and, because of that, can only be used on domestic students. It says so right on the website. But they shouldn't be spooked by that. If they are interested, they should apply. If the committee thinks you are a good fit and wants you in the program, we'll work as hard as we can to make sure you have the chance to come.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Morgan. Any parting thoughts?
This might sound really dramatic but the REUSE program was really a life-changing experience for me that summer. I definitely would not be in the PhD at Carnegie Mellon if it weren't for my experience that summer. I don't know if I even would have pursued a Ph.D. had I gone anywhere else for an REU. This program showed me, in the best way possible, how the process of research works and - as a result - how much I enjoy it.