Giving thanks: Samsung AI Researcher of the Year Award and Donation to Mila

Note: see this announcement on the Mila’s homepage

Earlier this month (Nov 2020) at the Samsung AI Forum 2020 I was one of the five recipients of the inaugural Samsung AI Researcher of the Year Award by the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT). Samsung has been supporting my research ever since I was a postdoc at Mila in Montreal, and without their support I wouldn’t have been able to support all my PhD students (NSF, i’m looking at you!) Because of this prolonged support, I had been already grateful to Samsung even before this award, and I am even more thankful. It was also a humbling experience for me because of my fellow awardees, Seth Flaxman, Chelsea Finn, Cho-Jui Hsieh, and Jiajun Wu, who are so much more awesome than I am. Thanks for Seth’s suggestion, we are now all on each other’s whatsapp, which is another perk I got out of this award.

Detour: Before I continue to talk about this award, let me just briefly share with you my experience as having been living abroad in three different places (Helsinki, Montreal and NYC) that speak three different languages (Finnish, French and English) as an expat and in particular as a student expat, over the past ten years or so. In short, it’s not easy. It’s not easy in many ways, but one that I felt as most challenging was this feeling I had whenever I moved to a new place that I have to stay alert, watch my account balance and prepare for the worst until I fully settle down and get used to this new city and country. Even then, there’s a nagging feeling that I am only a temporary resident here and that I must be prepared to leave immediately without any hesitation if I’m forced to or decide to.

You can literally see this stress from newly arriving students or more broadly expats who are not financially well off. They have a difficult time appreciating beauty and joy in a new place, not to mention enjoying them. Even if this new town is filled up with awesome restaurants, they wouldn’t facy the idea of dining at those restaurants. Even if the city is surrounded by amazing tourist destinations, they wouldn’t spare their time to visit them unless their parents come visit them. Their places are often light on furnitures, and even the furnitures they get are on the cheapest end of the spectrum: in fact, a lot of them don’t even buy a full bed but just a cheap mattress placed on their floor.

Even in my case, where I have been relatively well off financially for a newly arriving student/postdoc, i’ve never bought a couch ever since i left my parents’ place (don’t worry i’m planning to do so shortly,) and i bought a bed with a box spring for the first time only when I moved to NYC as a new faculty member. It took me my parents’ visit after my second year in Finland to travel to Rovaniemi and other touristic destinations in Finland and neighbouring countries (and let me tell you: there aren’t so many.) It took me a workshop at NRC Canada to visit Ottawa when I was in Montreal, and took me an invitation by Hugo Larochelle to visit U. Sherbrooke to visit Quebec City (I know.. it’s not on the way to Sherbrooke, but I took a detour.) Even when I could afford it, it took several walk-by’s before I could mentally prepare myself to decide to dine in at this reasonably fancy (but not that much…) place, and it still does.

That’s the weirdest thing: most of these I could afford back then and can certainly afford now. However, even if I could afford it, even if I knew it would improve how I live, and even if I knew that would make my days more comfortable, a lot of things felt much less accessible and looked overly and unnecessarily luxurious. I’ve experienced this stress, although I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and never regretted moving to and living in these places, been financially stable for most of my expat years and haven’t had any dependent to support. One begins to wonder how challenging it must be for others (and you!) who may be in worse situations.

Back to the award: this award comes with generous $30,000 USD monetary prize1 (!) And, no, it’s not paid to the university for me to use to support my research, but it is the prize paid directly to me. In other words, I’m free to do whatever i want with this $30,000 that sprang out of nowhere. should i finally buy a couch? well, i could, but i can buy it without this prize money. should i buy a car? well, i live in manhattan. should i go on a luxury vacation? well, pandemic…

After a brief period of pondering, i’ve decided to donate the prize money2 to Mila where I was a postdoc for 1.5y + a visiting student for 0.5y. More specifically, i’ve decided to donate the prize money to Mila on the condition that it is used to provide a one-time cash supplement of up to $1,500 CAD to each incoming female students/postdoc, arriving from either Latin America, Africa, South Asia, South East Asia and Korea, until the donation runs out. I hope this supplement gives students, who have just arrived at Montreal to start the new chapter of their lives, a bit of room for breathing. Perhaps they can use it to go enjoy a dinner at a nice restaurant in Montreal. Perhaps they can go out with their new friends and family for beer. Perhaps they can buy not just a mattress but a proper bed. it’s not for me to determine what lets them relax a bit in the midst of settling down in a new environment, and I just hope this to be helpful in whatever way suits them best.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Mila (which was, to be precise, called Lisa back then,) and have greatly benefited from spending my time there as a postdoc. i cannot imagine where i would be had i not been a postdoc at Mila. And, I hope this small gesture of mine could make a diverse group of incoming students/postdocs from all corners of the world to have a more enjoyable time in Mila and benefit from their time in Mila as much as if not more than i have.

Why female students from these regions (Latin America, Africa, South Asia, South East Asia and Korea)? our field has an issue of representation in many aspects. we have an issue of gender representation. we have an issue of geographical representation. we have an issue of educational background/discipline representation. we have many more issues of representation in different aspects. All these issues of representation are equally important and critical, and I know that these are not just pipeline issues, based on my experiences of meeting amazing talents while teaching at Deep Learning Indaba 2018, Khipu.AI 2019, SEAML 2019, Deep Learning UB 2019 and the African Master’s Programme in Machine Intelligence (AMMI). these issues are often of opportunities and support. I believe we need to take even a little action at a time rather than waiting to address all of them simultaneously. in this particular case, I decided to give a minuscule shot at addressing a couple of these issues; the lack of female representation and the limited representation of researchers and students from Latin America, Africa, South Asia and South East Asia (I added Korea because the prize came from a Korean company :))

Also, perhaps a bit selfishly, i want to make sure there’ll be a role model my niece can look up to in the field of AI when she’s older.

(1) they also sent me this awesome plaque, but i don’t think Mila would appreciate it as donation.

(2) i’ve decided to donate $35,000 CAD after setting aside a bit for tax. after all, i’ve been paying more federal tax than the president for quite some time already and am expecting to pay some more this coming tax season.

4 thoughts on “Giving thanks: Samsung AI Researcher of the Year Award and Donation to Mila

  1. Your donation was truly inspiring and shows how you genuinely care about diversity and education. I have a question and it comes from place of curiosity, not that I want to accuse you for something, or diminish the value of your considerate donation. No matter what your answer is I think what you did is really respectful.
    you’ve mentioned that you donated the money to ” incoming female students/postdoc, arriving from either Latin America, Africa, South Asia, South East Asia and Korea”, was there any specific reason that you excluded the middle east from your list? Considering the fact that, except for one or two countries, many of the middle east countries are experiencing severe currency devaluation, war, and as a result very weak education/research infrastructures?

    1. that’s totally a valid question, and perhaps i should’ve been more explicitly and detailed in explaining the condition i put on the donation. let me briefly explain it here.

      first, let me answer a more general version of your question, since “middle east countries” in your question could be replaced with many other countries/regions without altering my answer (e.g. central asia, north korea, pacific, etc.) the list of regions i’ve selected was created not by exclusion but by inclusion. that is, i did not start from the full list of countries/regions and excluded various countries/regions according to any particular set of criteria, but started from an empty list and added a few countries/regions that i was sure of their lack of representation within the fields of ML/NLP/AI. in this sense, it’s not really a question why i “excluded the middle east”, because i never excluded any countries/regions.

      then, perhaps i should answer why i included these specific countries/regions. the answer is already in the post albeit implicitly. these are regions where i’ve visited in order to give lectures on ML/NLP to students and others in recent years. i’ve been teaching a NLP course for the African Master’s Program in Machine intelligence (AMMI). i taught a course at the inaugural South East Asian Machine Learning summer school in Indonesia and another lecture at the inaugural Khipu summer school in Uruguay, both in 2019. These experiences have taught me that these regions (Africa, South Asia* and Latin America) are full of aspiring students however often with the lack of institutional supports for students studying abroad. of course, this doesn’t imply that other regions are not alike, but simply implies that i have first-hand experience in these regions.

      finally, it’s my hope that my donation (and public announcement of it, despite my embarrassment) would encourage others to do something similar in the future so that similar benefits will extend to a broader group of students and postdocs.

      (*) in my mind, South Asia includes both South Asia and South East Asia, but it’s more conventional to refer to these two sub-regions separately.

      1. Thanks for taking the time and writing this descriptive answer. That’s understandable.

        It was certainly encouraging for me!

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