Nilay Patel is a member of the inaugeral class of UC Santa Cruz's new Master's program in Natural Language Processing. During COVID, he has been taking courses remotely from his hometown in Florida. He talked with us about what he likes about NLP, and what he is hoping to do when he graduates.
What made you decide to attend UCSC’s NLP Program?
I’m really interested in the more mathy side of computer science and theory in general. Natural Language Processing (NLP) was kind of an extension of that. I’m not an expert at computer science, math, or linguistics, but they fascinate me, and NLP is kind of at the intersection of them all.
My undergrad thesis was on a problem related to recommender systems. The project took a whole bunch of student evaluation data and we wanted to use it to predict which professors would match up well with which courses. We used a lot of machine learning but if we had the time we would have definitely incorporated NLP to crunch the text, so it helped me realize the potential of it.
When I was applying, I looked for programs with an NLP focus, mostly in CS. I figured it’s a new enough field that there are cool things for students and researchers to get involved with. A degree in NLP will help me focus on what I want to do.
What do you think of the program so far?
No complaints! The professors clearly know their stuff. The first week and a half was largely review. After we got that out of the way, we started working on projects and things really ramped up. I’m really enjoying the machine learning courses. Our first homework was a mini competition. We had about 3,000 data points and we were given broken down queries like “Who plays Luke in Star Wars?” translated to phrases like movies.starwars.starringroles and had to predict what the original question was.
I’m taking the course from Florida, which is a change of pace because I’ve never had classes go so late. One begins at 8:20pm, and normally my brain is doing something that doesn’t require quite so much focus by then. I’m adjusting.
What would you like to do after you complete your NLP degree?
After I get the degree, my goal is to get another, ideally a Ph.D. in the field, but if by some miracle I get a really nice job doing research at a company things might change.
Before the degree started I was really interested in machine translation but I’ve been exposed to so many new things in the past few weeks I don’t quite know what I want to focus on. As an example I’ve been really interested in language modeling, which is exactly what it sounds like: say if you have a sentence and want to build a model that will predict the next word in a sequence.
Tell us some fun facts about yourself.
My biggest hobby is playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and more recently my own game based on the Star Wars universe. I’m DMing, which means I’m leading my friends on a series of quests. The game is about the criminals and intergalactic smugglers living in the StarWars universe. It’s really narrative-based, although of course there’s combat as well. I play the environment and the non-player characters. We call it Space Pirates.
I also enjoy reading. I’ve been reading the Stormlight Archive, which is a monster of a book. There’s a new one coming out in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been rereading the series.