By Christopher Thomas (CT), Lilit Avetisyan (LA), and Muslean Jain (MJ)
Chris Thomas, the Student Co-Editor-In-Chief of A Zine about “Students as Partners”, sat down with Lilit Avetisyan, a PhD student in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, and Muslean Jain, an undergraduate student in data science, to talk about their joint work on a recent unpublished project.
CT: How did you wind up working together?
LA: Our advisors, Feng Zhou and Fred Feng, are both in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering. They were working on a project together, but we didn’t know it at the time. We were roommates, both looking for research opportunities. It was funny to realize after a couple of meetings that we actually wound up working on the same project.
MJ: I was actually interested in the SURE program but they didn’t have any openings. I knew I wanted to work with Python handling data and understanding how it works, and professor Feng was like, “Hey, there’s research going on and I could use your help with some tasks.” So that’s how I started working on this micro mobility project.
LA: My advisor, Feng Zhou, is oriented in natural language processing and media analysis, and I had some programming background, so that’s why I was chosen to participate in the project. It actually wasn’t my choice; the professors decide who is assigned what task based on their knowledge.
CT: And the project involved natural language processing, is that correct?
MJ: My work wasn’t on natural language processing. I got tasks based on my qualifications, cleaning the data, making data visualizations, that kind of stuff. Lilit’s work was more natural language processing, and they were trying to understand sentiment analysis from the data.
LA: Yeah, we did social media analysis to understand what people actually think about some kind of products related to micro mobility. What are the positive things they accept or what are the main concerns related to that product? We asked, what are the main topics they are discussing on Twitter? Ultimately, we wanted to understand the main differences in discussions across Europe and the US, as well as the causes and effects of those differences on development of the micro mobility industry.
CT: That’s pretty cool. So, how was your experience working together?
LA: It was good, but we had separate tasks. We didn’t do much together, per se.
MJ: Yeah, we did very different things. Lilit was working on one side of the research and I was working on the other.
LA: But in the end, our results were interconnected.
CT: You’re both at very different points in your academic careers. Muskan, was this your first time working with a PhD student and, vice versa, Lilit, was this your first time working with an undergraduate student? What have you both learned?
LA: For this project I worked on a number of tasks with undergrads. It was interesting because they have a different way of thinking, but sometimes they also need some guidance. Plus, I have some industrial experience which helps me to prioritize tasks, optimize a way of making everything work.
MJ: For me, it was definitely overwhelming working with a lot of PhD students. Sometimes, you wonder if you are up to their level cause you’re surrounded by a lot of smart people. But, it was a really good learning experience.
LA: That’s a good point. Working with undergrads, you need to remember that they usually don’t have the same level of experience and not to pressure them to know as much as you know or work as much as you are working, or to force opinions on them. It’s the same situation for me working with professors. Because they have more knowledge about this industry and you’re always a little scared to tell them about your opinion. Generally, if they tell you to do it this way or that, you just accept their opinion.
CT: Do you think it was easier to interact with other students compared to professors on the project? Why or why not?
LA: It’s easy to work with students because you understand each other. You don’t have this formal pressure like between a student and professor. You are more open to talk with each other, ask questions, and discuss.
CT: Now that the project has concluded, if you could reimagine the project would you change anything?
LA: I don’t think I would. I was so excited to work on this actually. Maybe I would try different technologies, things we couldn’t try due to tight deadlines. I had the opportunity to try a few different things, but you don’t have a chance to show all the work you did. You are presenting the best thing you have, so it can be just five minutes of presenting. I used this algorithm and have this result, but actually it can be like one month of your life working on the project, trying your best, working at night to achieve the result.
MJ: Yeah, we had some programming assignments, but we didn’t have enough time to explore [LA nods in agreement], to find other functions that we could have used, and do some of our own research self-teaching or on YouTube. When I was doing the task assigned for that research, I didn’t know as much as I know now. So, there were definitely some things that I could have done better. I was scared and was struggling a bit to learn everything for that project. Now, after the fact and after taking some more data science courses I see things differently.
CT: You both said that you didn’t work directly together. Would you have liked to work more closely with each other or others on the project?
MJ: I really wanted to work with Lilit because she has worked on data visualization and data before. She has actual industrial experience and I wanted to work on the project together with her because I feel like I would have had good guidance, advice, and she could have taught me so much.
LA: Yeah, I also think that working together might have been more useful, and for all of us.
MJ: Lilit, as a PhD student, was always busy. I didn’t want to bother her. She would make a lot of coffee and would be up all night [all laugh]. She’s always in her room studying. She’s a PhD student, it’s so overwhelming. I see her drinking so much coffee. In our apartment during COVID, in the middle of the night I would smell coffee from the kitchen, and I was like, Ah there you go! That’s Lilit! [LA laughs]
LA: That’s the PhD life guys. If you one day decide to apply for a PhD, just know, that’s how you would spend your day [erupts in laughter].
CT: I just want to know, is the coffee free in grad school? Do we get free coffee?
LA: Unfortunately, no, the coffee still costs. [all laugh]
CT: Do you think it’s important to have these sorts of relationships between graduate students and undergraduate students as research partners on campus? If so, why? What do you think the campus at large could learn from more relationships like these?
LA: I think it’s a good idea. As I mentioned before, you have completely different points of view about the same problems, and I think that’s the biggest plus of working together. It’s not always that undergrads know less than you, because the resources are available and sometimes you can meet undergrads who know like 10-100 times more than you. They have more time to explore, so you always learn some new technology from them and new tricks to make some tasks easier because undergrads are more or less a little lazy [all laugh]. Like for us PhD students, you have lots of things to do. You don’t have time to think of how to do that task. You are just trying to finish everything.
CT: Just driving head on in, and I’ll figure out how to do it later [all laugh].
MJ: Yeah, I definitely think it’s important as an undergraduate to be working with a grad student just because it’s a very good learning experience. You ask yourself, hey, do I want to be on this career path? It helps you set goals for your future, professional goals. Aim higher, or change your aim maybe.
LA: It’s also motivating, right? At least for me, it was very big motivation. When my professors assigned me to tasks with graduate students when I was an undergrad I felt more serious, like I can do more and learn more. That’s an important thing. Maybe for graduate students they might think, Oh, undergrads, we have to guide them, we need to follow what they are doing all the time. But, for undergraduates I think it’s really motivational to work with other students, especially with graduate students.