• By Jens-Steffen Scherer
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10 out of 200: Fighting online harassment – Amy Xian Zhang improves our social media environment

Meet Amy Xian Zhang, computer scientist and one of this year’s 10 out of 200 young researchers participating in the 6th Heidelberg Laureate Forum from September 23-28, 2018.

Photo courtesy of Amy Xian Zhang

What is your name and nationality?
My name is Amy Xian Zhang and I am from the U.S.

Where did you study and where are you currently based?
Prior to my Ph.D., I completed an M.Phil. at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Scholar in Computer Science. Before that, I completed a Computer Science B.S. at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Currently, I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.

What is your current position?
I am a 5th year Ph.D. student in Computer Science at MIT in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL).

What is the focus of your research? What is your research project?
My research focus is how to design and build better online discussion systems, systems such as email, chat, social media, and forums. Particularly, I am interested in how these systems could better help everyday users to make sense of, moderate their experiences with, and make sound judgements of the large quantities of discussion-based information that they encounter every day. One project, Squadbox, is targeted at recipients of online harassment, and helps them leverage friends to moderate their inbox for them.

Why did you become a computer scientist?
My interest in computer science started in high school. At the time, I enjoyed the puzzle-solving nature of computer science problems we were given in school, as well as enjoyed the freedom and creativity that came with leveraging computer science to build whatever I wanted. At the time, this was a lot of web designs for other people’s blogs and social media. It wasn’t until senior year of college, however, that I began to really be interested in research and be fascinated by the design of social technology, including how it was weaving into and affecting almost every aspect of our lives.

What are some of the fundamental challenges you have faced in your academic career?
The biggest challenges during my Ph.D. thus far have mostly been around time-management, figuring out which projects are best to pursue out of many possible directions, and learning how to become a good manager and mentor to student researchers.

What do you feel are the greatest pressures facing scientists today?
One difficult aspect about being a scientist today, particularly one within academia, is the many responsibilities and opportunities that we are given or offered, whether it’s different research projects, teaching, mentoring, service, impact, or public outreach, so that it can be difficult to know what is the relative proportion of attention we should pay to each thing. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling compelled to say yes to everything and also desiring to excel at everything we say yes to, which can lead to overwork and burnout.

What are you doing besides research?
I enjoy physical activity such as hiking, playing tennis, and indoor rock climbing. I enjoy relaxing with a good book, usually fiction. I am a bit of a news junkie. I like to travel to new places and sightsee.

How did you hear about the HLF and why did you apply?
A few people I know had attended in prior years and recommended it. I applied because I didn’t see much downside. It’s an opportunity to, in a short amount of time, meet many other young researchers as well as distinguished senior researchers in a relatively low-key and also beautiful setting.

What do you expect from this meeting?
I am most interested in meeting other young researchers and learning about their research and experiences in academia. I hope to both meet others that are working in similar areas as myself as well as people doing totally different things but that might spark new ideas from a conversation.

Which laureates present at the forum would you really like to talk to and what do you want to ask them?
It would be an honor to meet Ivan Sutherland, the inventor of the Sketchpad and one of the early pioneers of computer graphics and interactive interfaces. I would ask him what he thinks are the near and long-term applications of AR and VR for education, social interaction, civic and political discourse, and information work.

Who were your most important mentors and what lessons did they pass on to you?
All of my research advisors, including my undergraduate, masters, Ph.D., and several internship advisors, have been important mentors in my research thus far. From them, I learned about different ways to run a research lab or conduct a research project, I learned about each person’s unique tastes in research questions and directions, and I learned from their different writing styles. This has helped clarify my own research tastes and ways that I prefer to conduct work or write.

As an expert on social computing: Which social media are most suitable for researchers to outreach the general public?
For me, that has been Twitter. I have met many interesting people on Twitter including academics within my field, in other fields, as well as people completely outside of academia who are doing unusual things. There is a lot of great advice and conversations happening on Twitter, including advice for early-career academics, and even collaborations and project ideas are formed there.

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Jens-Steffen Scherer is a neuroscientist, science communicator, and moderator. Besides pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Oldenburg, he works for the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik) and the Südwestrundfunk (SWR). In 2018 Jens-Steffen won the 8th Science Slam of Oldenburg. LinkedIn