Stony Brook Matters

Computer Science Grad Student Is “Dancing His PhD”

PhD student Huy Vu used filming skills, writing, directing, editing and choreographing to create his thesis video.

PhD student Huy Vu has found a creative way to explain his thesis — by writing, directing, producing and dancing in a video.

The third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University, created the video for the 13th annual worldwide “Dance Your PhD” competition run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and its research journal, Science. The contest requires students to explain their PhD thesis through dance and body movements.

Huy’s video also delivers messages about LGBTQ inclusion, the struggles of researchers and the meaning of doing research. It also suggests balancing work and life by pursuing and enjoying your hobbies.

He sees the video as more than just a way to win the Dance Your PhD contest. “As you can see in the video, there are many messages that I wanted to share with my PhD peers and hopefully with anyone who’s thinking about getting an PhD:

  • What you do is meaningful. It is very hard though. But keep working on it, don’t give up!
  • Every researcher struggles. So don’t ever feel down when things are not working out.
  • We researchers can be really cool too!

Honestly, I feel like having many people watch and get inspired from it is my biggest reward. I do want to win of course, not because of the money prize, but because it will help my video get promoted and reach more people, hopefully inspire more researchers. So if you like the video, please share it with your friends.” 

The idea for Huy’s thesis began with a very interesting paper by his advisor, Professor H. Andrew Schwartz, in which he uses a data-driven method to look for language keywords corresponding to different personalities used by social media users. The method has many pros, but it also has a con — keywords in word clouds are sparse and difficult to understand without context. So Huy proposed building a generative model to generate full, complete sentences corresponding to each personality trait. These sentences potentially contain richer information, with full contexts that deliver the semantics in a more natural, interpretable way than with word clouds.

Huy works with Professor Schwartz in the HLAB (Human Language Analysis Beings) at Stony Brook, which develops large and scalable language analyses for health and social sciences. Utilizing natural language processing and machine learning techniques, the lab seeks to discover new behavioral and psychological factors of health and well-being as shown through language in social media. The HLAB attempts to change the way natural language processing is done to focus more on the humans behind the language and change the way psychological and health research is done by introducing rigorous data-driven and behavior-based analyses that unlock answers to big questions that are difficult to answer with traditional techniques.

PhD student Huy Vu used filming skills, writing, directing, editing and choreographing to create his thesis video.
PhD student Huy Vu used filming skills, writing, directing, editing and choreographing to create his thesis video.

Huy’s research centers on the intersection of computer science and psychology. “I love applying data science and natural language processing methods to analyze human thoughts, their characteristics and behaviors,” he said. “Isn’t it cool to transform a person’s thought, something very abstract, into a concrete numeric vector space and then manipulate and analyze these vectors. Finally, map them back to the human’s thought space to predict their next behavior or to predict their mental health state.”

His main research direction is text generation conditioned on human mental health and psychological traits such as personalities, with the goal of understanding human psychology with another perspective, as well as building more human-like, sympathetic conversation robots.

“I have a great interest in machine learning, especially natural language processing and its application to psychology and social science,” he added. “I always believe that the collisions of different scientific fields are the origins of novel and exciting innovations.”

In 2017 Huy earned a bachelors degree in mathematics and computer science from Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City University of Science, where he was leader of the university’s dance club. 

Although Huy considers his strength is in logical thinking, he always had a big love for art, starting with dancing, since it’s a great way to experience and understand a great span of human emotions. Interestingly, Professor Schwartz’s research is at the intersection of the two — logical thinking from computer science and understanding emotions from psychology research. In fact, it’s the reason he decided to attend Stony Brook after learning about Schwartz’s work on the HLAB website. 

Huy is still deciding between working in industry or in academia after graduation. He likes the idea of freedom to do research in academia, but also likes the practical approach in problem solving found in the industry.

About the Contest

Winners are selected based on the combination of three scores: scientific merit, artistic merit and creative combination of the science and art. Entrants are classified into one of four categories based on the scientific field of their thesis: Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Social Sciences. This year, individuals can also enter a dance in the newly created COVID-19 category based on research that explains the disease and its consequences to health and society. Normal category winners receive $750, the COVID-19 category has a $500 award and the overall winner receives an extra $2,000. Winners will be announced in a few weeks.

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