2019 Student Essay Contest: Undergraduate First Place

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

By Liyaan Maskati (Brown University, Providence, RI)

Interviewee: : Ellie Pavlick (Brown University, Providence, RI)

/不⼊⻁穴,焉得⻁子(Chinese proverb) /

/You must enter the tiger’s den to catch his cubs (Literal translation) /

/Nothing ventured, nothing gained (What it means) /

Professor Ellie Pavlick is unafraid to embrace versatility. By profession, she is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Brown University, where she plumbs the depths of natural language processing research and currently teaches a course on Data Science. But outside the realm of computer science, she is an adventurous cook, harbors a passion for painting, and has earned an undergraduate degree in both saxophone performance and economics.
Pavlick’s travels down the path of exploration began early in her life. As a child, she entertained several career aspirations, ranging from the “classic” desire to be an astronaut, to careers in music, law, acting and journalism. “I think I thought I would do something more artsy,” reflected Pavlick, “but I always liked all my classes [in school].” Pavlick’s eclectic interests followed her to university and in 2012, she received a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Johns Hopkins University, alongside a Bachelor of Music in Saxophone Performance from the Peabody Conservatory.

/Rúsínan í Pylsuendanum (Icelandic Proverb)/

/The raisin at the end of the hotdog (Literal translation) /

/An unexpected surprise at the end of something (What it means) /

After graduating from Johns Hopkins, Pavlick went on to study Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania and received her PhD in 2017. “In high school, I didn’t even know what computer science was,” Pavlick said, reflecting on how her involvement with computer science began fairly late in her academic endeavors. “Computer Science wasn’t even on my radar until junior year of college,” she said, describing how she was conducting research with an Economics professor at Johns Hopkins, when she discovered that she needed to code with MatLab. “I ended up taking a CS class to learn how to [code] and really liked the assignments, so [my academic interests] switched at that point. It was kind of an accidental thing,” she said, admitting that her career in Computer Science “wasn’t very planned out. Things came up and I went with it.”
Although Pavlick’s path to Computer Science was meandering, it quickly became clear that Computer Science was the right field for her. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else!” she exclaimed. Following her PhD, Pavlick went on to work as a postdoctorate at Google for a year, where she conducted research on biased languages. Her work specifically focused on how to recognize phrases that technically mean the same thing, but carry different connotations. In 2018, Pavlick joined Brown University’s Department of Computer Science. Her current research interests are centered on natural language processing, where she explores the various nuances of semantics and pragmatics, such as language style and structure, the implicit meaning of phrases and language representation. “There are a lot of aspects of language that are really complex and humans are really good at picking up on those nuances, and machines are really not,” said Pavlick. “I love working on [something] so fundamentally human and so complex.”

/Det är ingen ko på isen (Swedish proverb) /

/Literal translation: There’s no cow on the ice (Literal translation) /

/There’s no need to worry (What it means)/

While natural language processing, economics and saxophone performance may seem completely disparate, Pavlick effectively manages to draw parallels between the fields. “[What I like about] language feels very similar to what I liked about economics,” said Pavlick. She believes that both language and markets involve people coordinating with each other in a very decentralized way, which fascinates her. Likewise, Pavlick often draws connections between her undergraduate music studies and her current work in computer science. As a saxophonist, Pavlick primarily focused on playing contemporary music, which involved algorithmically generated compositions, electronic music, patterns and repetition. “You can definitely see the connection [between music and] mathematical fields,” explained Pavlick. “I still feel like it’s a consistent part of how I think about things.”
Pavlick’s advice to students pursuing a career in the mathematics sciences is succinct: be confident. According to Pavlick, most STEM fields “feel very objective” and it often “seems like everyone knows more than you do.” While fighting against imposter syndrome isn’t easy, Pavlick advises students to try to be confident, embrace challenges and let things fall into place.

/Kemur Allt Me› Kalda Vatninu (Icelandic proverb)/

/It All Comes with the Cold Water (Literal translation)/

/If you are patient, things will fall into place. (What it means)/