Aalto University School of Science Alumnus of the Year 2020

So, this happened. My alma mater chose me as the Alumnus of the Year! As a proud alumni of Aalto University, this is my immense honour to be selected as one. See the announcement in Suomi and English.

Aalto University (in particular School of Science within) and Finland just keep on giving, and I feel like I continue to receive without giving anything back. I will have to think of some way for me to pay back all that I have received from them.

Kiitos paljon!

Of course, the whole event was virtual, and due to the time difference, I could not attend myself. Instead, I sent the video recording of my greetings. You can watch it at https://youtu.be/074nhA9SQvA. I’m also attaching the script I used for recording this video below.



i received admission to the international master’s program in machine learning and data mining, which was called back then Macadamia, from Helsinki University of Technology in the spring of 2009.

although i applied to the program myself, finland was largely a land of mystery to me. perhaps this mysterious nature of the country may have been one of the major motivations for me to apply for this program in the first place. in my mind back then, finland was associated with just a couple of things, such as Nokia and Helsinki Olympics. i must confess that i wasn’t even aware that finland shared a border with russia. unsurprisingly, going to finland to study was definitely not what i had in my mind until one of my friends then handed me the brochure of the Macadamia program in the winter of 2008.

the very first lecture i attended in helsinki university of technology, which was about to be merged with the other two universities to form aalto university back then, was of the course “Machine Learning: Basic Principles”. this course was taught by Tapani Raiko, who had advised and mentored me for the next five years and who i still continue to admire and keep in touch with. in the very first lecture, i could immediately tell that i made the right choice to be there to study machine learning. and, to this day, i still believe i made the right choice to be there at Aalto University to study machine learning and data mining.

as a part of the Macadamia program, some students were assigned to some of the labs within the department, which was back then information and computer science (ICS), to assist in research one day a week with a small amount of stipend. the master’s program was still free to anyone from anywhere in the world back then in finland, which i sadly learned recently that is not the case anymore. without tuition-free education, my decision to come to finland to study in Aalto University may have taken a very different course.

anyways, i was assigned to the Bayes group, which i do not believe exists anymore and despite its name had a longer history of research in neural networks. the group back then was led by Prof. Juha Karhunen, who i believe had recently retired, together with Tapani and Prof. Alexander Ilin, who recently made a comeback to Aalto to re-build the Bayes group however with a new name “Deep Learning”. this part-time research gig at the then-Bayes group, which started in September 2009, was the beginning of my research career that is still on-going.

i often wonder what i would’ve become had it not been for this program, called the “honours program” then, if i remember correctly, had it not been for me to be assigned to the Bayes group, or had it not been for me to be advised by Tapani and Alexander. it’s simply unimaginable. five years later in March 2014, i defended my doctoral dissertation against my “opponent” Prof. Nando de Freitas, in front of my friends, colleagues and supervisors from then-newly-formed the Department of Computer Science of Aalto University School of Science.

over those five years, i spent many days and nights in Maarintalo, studying for exams and working on projects. over those five years, i spent many days and nights in the computer science building, working toward my dissertation. over those five years, i had an uncountable number of lunches at the cafeterias in the computer science building as well as the main building. over those five years, i met so many friends and colleagues, many of whom i still keep in touch with.

Aalto University gave me an enormous opportunity by bringing me to Finland and giving me rigorous education on machine learning. Furthermore, Aalto University had successfully created an international environment in which I could immerse myself among talents from all over the world and be inspired by them. These were just the beginning of the series of opportunities Aalto University School of Science had given me over those five years.

my phd years were generously supported by FICS (the finnish doctoral programme in computational sciences), which has since discontinued and i believe has been replaced by HICT. near the end of my phd programme, i was given a chance and supported by FICS and Prof. Erkki Oja to spend six months visiting the University of Montreal to broaden my view and to further learn from the very best in the world.

this research visit opened my eyes to a broader set of topics in machine learning, and in particular this visit was how and when i began to seriously delve into studying how machine learning and more broadly AI could be used for and improve natural language processing and machine translation. this research visit led me to join the University of Montreal as a postdoc in a lab which was called Lisa back then and is now called Mila, immediately after i defended my dissertation.

And, now, i am an associate professor of computer science & data science at New York University, running my own research lab and teaching machine learning to aspiring students from all over the world.

in my opinion, one of the most important roles served by higher education is to bring the best out of each student. what this implies is that higher education cannot simply shove down knowledge into students, and education cannot simply show easy, comfortable and convenient ways forward to students. education must strive to provide as diverse and broad a set of opportunities and perspectives to students as possible in order to ensure each and every student has a chance to discover their way forward.

What i experienced during my years at Helsinki University Technology which had become Aalto University School of Science and Technology and has eventually become Aalto University School of Science, was precisely this; rigorous and thorough education, and a string of educational and extra-curricular opportunities within and beyond the wall of the university and even the country’s border.

It is truly my honour to be named the alumnus of the year, and to be frank I am quite unsure whether i deserve it. off the top of my head, i can think of Prof. Alexander Ilin, who is now back at Aalto University. Dr. Tapani Raiko, who is now at Apple, is another obvious candidate. and, no, it’s a totally objective list. they just happened to have mentored me throughout my years at Aalto.

let me wrap it up by dusting off my finnish: Kiitos paljon!

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