Saturday December 14th

My first Neurips experience

I received a Travel Grant to attend my first Neurips

  • This covered both my registration, and gave me some travel funds to make it to my very first Neurips conference. It was an experience!

Neurips was held in Vancouver this year

  • In some ways, it felt like a very privileged space. You’re surrounded by the cream of the crop in Academia, with the opportunity to speak with them about their work, and to meet some of the up and coming superstars in the areas of AI and Machine Learning.
  • You could argue that there are people from all over the world, but the number of hurdles you would have to go through if you were just a nobody to attend, unless you lucked out and got a ticket via the lottery this year (and even then, you’d have to foot the hotel and flight and your expenses by yourself, or your company would have to pay for it) meant that I found myself surrounded moreso by people I felt were already set up to succeed. I thought about this a lot during my time at the conference, especially in light of the visa denials from several researchers from specifically African countries. Also particularly (I thought about this) as I was the only one from my entire school, or in Vermont, who was able to attend this year. I know this sounds trivial, but in a conference of over 20 000 people from all over the world, being the only person from your entire state (which you weren’t even born in) was interesting.

The people are very nice, kind, and open

  • The people in my circles were very nice, particularly the crowd of BAI, of which I’m a member. I can’t even imagine what my experience would have been without the warmth of that group, and other Affinity groups at the conference.

Companies recruit you

  • Companies that attend the first few days throw Invite-Only parties. They send these invites out sometimes a week or week and a half before the start of the conference, but you can also schmooze up the booth to get an invite to an event, too. However, for some companies this is almost impossible to do; they are very selective. It creates a strange hierarchy at the conference, where you sometimes make friends with someone who has travelled 35 hours to attend Neurips for the first time, and they weren’t invited to a single company-sponsored party. I’m thankful for groups such as BAI (and other affinity groups), which made these kinds of interactions better for people who don’t necessarily attend the top schools, or know the top researchers in this field. At our mixer, LeCun, Dean and Bengio attended, and several top researchers made a presence to show support as allies for such groups in AI.
  • I was very fortunate this year in that not only did I receive a travel grant and free registration to attend, but I was recruited by about 70% of the companies in attendance. However, it still created a weird rift where some of my friends wanted to attend some parties, but did not get an invite, or other friends were attending other parties. However, it is to be noted that the point of these parties is for recruitment. It did leave a bit of a strange taste in my mouth, because bits of it reminded me of the exclusionary attitude associated with Silicon Valley tech, and their habit of feigning “a commitment to diversity and inclusion”. So I’m still thinking about that. I felt a lot of community among my peers at the conference, and I think that the SV tech recruiting scene was almost a bit at odds with that. However, they did sponsor many events and activities that enabled several researchers to attend, also (and several researchers do work for those companies, too).

My realization

  • There were a couple times in the conference where I thought “my lab does more interesting work than this! Why is this funded by insert large corporation in industry?” With much chutzpah after a keynote, and a speaker surrounded by a crowd, I spoke to the keynote speaker and told him about some of the things my lab was doing, and he said “that sounds like something I’d very much be interested in! Please email me”.
  • There was also another time in which an invited speaker in my Privacy ML track literally showed research from our lab, with slides with my advisors’ faces on them; she had collaborated with them on research. Yet, we are this siloed lab, doing really interesting work, but without the glory of having insert big name company throwing us money. I also think that we trend more towards publishing in Journals, from what I’ve seen, whereas the focus seems to be posters of papers in major conferences in other labs. And we’re a pretty new lab by comparison, but we’re doing great work. But I’ve only been at my school for one semester, so.. It made me think about access a lot, and opportunity. At Neurips, you are surrounded by opportunity; you have access to anything you could want in the research ML/AI field. But what about those who don’t have those opportunities, but are doing great work? That’s why organizations such as BAI were so special to me at this conference.

You know more than you think

  • One of the things I was warned on the first evening was that you need to assert confidence, especially being a person of colour and a female, and particularly at this conference. Within the next afternoon, a gentleman at large company booth where I interned was speaking with a gentleman there. The gentleman who was asking the guy at the booth a question looked me up and down and decided that I wasn’t worth much, so he turned his body away from me and raised his voice, ignoring me. I was a bit irritated, so I chimed in, commenting on some questions he was asking, because not only did I intern at that company that had the booth, but he was asking basic questions about the field I was doing my PhD in. Also, I had implemented algorithms all semester that pertained to that field in a class. Suddenly, the gentleman turned pale, looked at me and said weakly “I guess I don’t know that much about this stuff”. Fortunately, for those more secure in their work, I was able to form a lot of relationships, and a lot of people in general contacted me, citing that they offer internships and were interested in speaking with me, because it is apparently difficult to find talented people in the exact field I’m focusing on. So I focused my energies on those people.

What I got out of the conference

  • There were lots of superstars there, but the moments that resonated the most for me were my experiences with budding researchers like myself. They were passionate and regardless of the schools they came from; they really wanted to make a difference in their field. I made so many friends at this conference. It’s interesting that in the midst of all these companies throwing us opportunities for financial security and internships, all of us were so focused on what we do, and our work, and the change we wanted to see in the world that movitated our being in our fields. These are people who will be successful because they have a deep desire to make a lasting difference in the world with their work.
  • I enjoyed a budding researchers panel, in which we were rotated around with established mentors in the field. I felt like I got a lot more out of that than any tech recruitment party. I did have a strange and enjoyable moment, though, in which my friend and I ended up in a limo with twelve other students. It showed up after an Uber party, and offered to take 20 of us (for a steal) back to the Convention Centre. Like a bunch of optimistic, curious student researchers, we piled into the limo and chatted on the journey, asking each other what we were researching, and listening to Russian EDM. It was an adventure and a time I’ll cherish at this conference. I’ll also cherish the BAI dinner, in which everyone ended up on the dance floor until the wee hours of the morning, dancing to AfroBeats music. It was one of the most amazing, magical moments for me at the conference (along with my first experience piling into the poster sessions, and the budding researchers social). I felt such affinity with that group.

Here are some pics

In other news

  • I’m flying back today, with a lot of optimism, and with a lot more focus. While I was there, I received word that I was a finalist for NCWIT, and I received the Graduate Writing Centre gig. Just before that, I also received word that I had gotten a grant to attend Real World Crypto in New York City, in early January.

Being at Neurips

  • Made me think about a lot of things. I made friends with a lady from my country who works at Microsoft Research, and joined a group of Trinidadians who research or work in AI on a WhatsApp group (about ten of us; they also had a dinner the night before, which I unfortunately missed because I was at the Cruise party and the Budding Researchers social; there are only so many things you can attend!). As she was speaking, my mind was filled with memories of my country of birth, and how I often felt like even though I went to a prestigious high school, something about the culture there (in that country) constantly made me feel like as a female, my efforts would never be acknowledged in the same way the efforts of a successful male would be acknowledged. I would go through emotions of simultaneously feeling angry and depressed about that reality; I felt stuck. Even though we attended a high school in which we were told we were the next generation of female leaders, only a few of us ever made that difference, because there was a dark cloud that hung over us that told us that we would never be good enough, that we wouldn’t be taken seriously for our efforts. And that if we did seek careers, the fact that we sacrificed some of our time for a career instead of motherhood would be a scarlet letter against us, that would outweigh anything we would ever be acknowledged for having accomplished. Meanwhile, our male counterparts were celebrated for their academic and career achievements, for their genius.
  • While I was at the conference, my dad wrote me an email where he spoke about how proud he was of me (which he always says!), and also that he was sure my aunt would have loved to speak with me about Academia. She went to the University of Madison in Wisconsin, did her PhD in Nutrition, and became a prolific head within the local University in my home country, where she also spearheaded the engineering department there. However, all she wanted was to become a professor (which is tricker in my home country than you would imagine, especially as a woman, and even trickier to gain the respect of persons in that field), and the people there went out of their way to block her in every way possible from achieving that. She was excellent, and experienced a lot of professional envy, sexism and incredible chauvinism. She would often play tennis and set up a monthly hiking group to destress. Her husband was also a musician and botanist. I remember every time I visited her, I would see the stacks of technical reports and papers she was either reading or writing. Unfortunately, years later, she eventually succumbed to cancer.
  • Why are we ignored? Why do our voices sound so small even when we scream? What is it that makes us invisible? We were taught to stand in the shadow of more powerful men, and to censor ourselves so that they would advance and attain glory in their fields, regardless of our ambitions. I remember dreaming as a tomboy (growing up), watching my mother tinker with cars, and my dad letting me ask questions as he put wirenuts on electrical wires. “What if I were a boy?”, I thought. Things would just be so much easier.
  • It made me grateful to just be here, today at Neurips, and to have the opportunity, even though I may never be acknowledged within my own country. Here, I have people who would acknowledge me and give me opportunities. In my mind, I left my country as a girl, and became a boy.

And that’s it

Written on December 14, 2019