Sunday December 13th

NeurIPS ‘20: Online version

This year’s NeurIPS was online.

  • My first NeurIPS was in 2019. You can find more about that here. At the time, I felt coming in like I was pretty much an outsider (I was the only person there from my school), and felt like I had just gotten lucky or someone had accidentally decided to grant me a travel award to attend. It was also my first time in Canada, and having a love for the West Coast, it gave me a reason to visit. Also, having my first semester turn out pretty terribly and feeling isolated, I was pretty much looking for any reason to get away.
  • As it turns out, I made some incredible friends at that conference, and we remained in touch throughout 2020. Some are now faculty at Universities, working at large corporations, or pursuing postdocs. Sometimes we have salty conversations online or via text (haha).

This year

  • A lot has happened in a year. I’ve settled in a lot more, and even though I am still an outsider in many ways where I am, in terms of the Academic community, I would say that I’ve quite settled in. I’m pretty familiar with many people in the AI research community, and consider them my peers and friends. They have talks with me and send me texts, tell me about their papers, and mentor me. We’re there for each other, even as they are in Academic institutions scattered all over the world.
  • So by the time this summer rolled around, I was notified that I was chosen for both the organizational team of WiML and BAI. To be honest, it was unexpected. I was pretty sure that one would reject me (so I’d just be able to work on one like a sane person), so I was pleasantly surprised to be accepted by both organizations. It’s a good thing I didn’t apply for that third one I was considering (lol). On top of that, I was wrapping up working on another conference. So it was pretty rough, and I definitely burned out one weekend and missed a meeting, and another time I overslept (my alarm didn’t go off :( for another). I pushed myself with respect to that, and although it wasn’t the greatest idea, somehow it worked out, and I’m thankful for all the support. Anyways, in terms of the events themselves, this year would be a challenge; everyone was adapting to the virtual platform. We had to be creative and try to keep people engaged.

Schedules changing

  • We ended up planning a number of activities and how they would translate to being virtual, such as the mentorship roundtables. Each organization did them in a unique way. We had virtual sponsor booths. We had ways for participants to mingle and all the talks would now be online. This meant that we had multiple platforms, and that some talks would be pre-recorded and others would be live. We ended up using a mix of SlidesLive, Gather Town, Zoom, Rocket Chat and the NeurIPS website. On top of running the event, we had to do our best to plan the digital space, keep sponsors happy, keep speakers happy, keep participants happy and enforce our code of conduct.

On top of that

  • I discovered this year that two of my submissions (in fact, the only two I had submitted) were accepted to workshops at NeurIPS! Furthermore, one was a painting and writing based on work and reading groups I had been engaged in over summer, and the other was research I was working on with my advisor. So somehow I had managed to get both a painting and scientific work into workshops at NeurIPS this year!
  • Both were really well received, and I’m super happy the way it worked out. Several people stopped by to comment on and ask questions, and for the painting, people expressed strong support for some of the conversations in the piece and engaged awesomely. I’m so happy! It seems like it’s one of the first spaces I’ve been able to bring all of myself. For most of my life, I’ve felt like I’ve had to choose one or the other.
  • That was all exciting. For one I was a first author (in fact, the sole author), and for the other, I was second author. So that was pretty cool! I’m quite pleased that I went from entering this new world just a year ago to being so engaged! Finally, I moderated two Q&As for WiML; one with Mihaela and another with Rediet, and fed questions for the other Q&As. I also moderated a talk with Cyril for BAI, and the topic was completely up my alley! AI and art! So cool!

Finally, on top of that

  • I also reviewed work for two workshops; BAI and AFCI. I did about 2 to 4 papers each, which was very manageable. I’ve been trying to get better with each opportunity, as that is part of the process of becoming an independent researcher. I’d like to be able to do a solid review regardless of the specific sub-field in AI, but it is a lot easier to review papers you’re excited about!
  • Alas, I’ve been told that the Graduate Writing Center may be shutting down after Spring semester at my school. And I’ve learned a lot. I hope this doesn’t happen, but I am prepared that this may be the outcome, and I still have all the things I learned this semester about reviewing work across disciplines. I really did work on helping my peers in everything from papers in Social Work to Clinician work to Biology, to Ecology and even a video and a Dissertation presentation. So it was definitely worthwhile. And..back to NeurIPS.

One of the treats

  • One of the treats this year was also being able to attend for the first time, SOCML. I was one of nine to attend the privacy track, and invited by Ian himself, which was a surprise. The discussion was fantastic, and being a secure computation nut this semester, I was able to listen in and ask a question about it, too! As it turns out, I’ll be continuing to spend my time this winter break (classes start again in February) on encryption and NLP. Also, I signed up for two classes that start in January and that run for 3 to 6 weeks. I’m excited about those as well. Finally, I got into two workshops; one based in the UK, and the other based in the US, and I’ll be attending those in January (and will be presenting posters for those workshops, too!). I’m also waiting back to hear from some other stuff.

Here are some of the memorable pics online

Me, testing out the virtual space for BAI

Testing out the virtual booth for BAI

Entering the SOCML Gather town space

  • I am really excited even though you can’t tell! This session was a treat!

What my phone looked like closer to the date of the conference.

  • A stream of notifications. This was in the time frame of one evening/ overnight

This is me being antisocial during a test run of the WiML Gather Town

  • Argh don’t talk to me (lol)

Us dancing

  • All work and no play and all that. I’m turned to the side because I’m mid-spinning :)

Shafi’s talk

  • this was one of the first talks I stayed up to attend. It was so worth it!

It’s me!

Me again!

Peak Gather Town

  • a LOT of people!

A poster!

Another poster!

  • My advisor was randomly assigned a black female avatar (with pearls!) initially. I asked him if he had chosen that, and he admitted that he hadn’t, which made us giggle.

  • Standing by our poster. Quite a few people stopped by to ask questions. Thank you!

Another poster

  • I used my concept design skills (it’s a digital painting) from many years ago to make a poster that spoke about some of the parallels I had noticed between contract workers and marginalized communities in tech and postcolonial literature (particularly from the Caribbean), particularly in the context of abolitionist insurgency thinking and the reimagining of futures that provided space for these persons to come together and to value the world they were building that wouldn’t centre Eurocentrism, and how that might relate to finding community outside of the larger, isolating structures of tech. The painting shows a black contract worker for a tech company who is spied on via their lanyard and reimagines a space where they could find community while feeling isolated in Big Tech. It got accepted, and I presented it. It got a lot of support from both researchers and artists; a lot of people came by and several persons said “thank you”, which was unexpected. So I had both a technical and non-technical work in NeurIPS this year :). Thank you to SFPC (American and others), C. Gossett’s workshop at Wendy’s Subway (and to guest speaker and MacArthur Fellow F. Moten, who are all thanked in the poster) and to other such spaces that allowed me to think about this work in this context. I also tried to make the blobs of text like islands, because you know, “archipelago”.
  • I also got to chatting with someone about Haskell, randomly, too (yes, in the same space as the painting)! Apparently, they also got into programming because of languages like Lisp and Haskell. They had agreed with me that if it were left up to languages like Java, they may not have stuck it out. Coming from another background, this person said the females in their class weren’t too keen on the Java stuff, but when Haskell came around, the guys in their class were struggling, and the ladies were like “this makes sense”. It levelled the playing field, so to speak. I asked my advisor if it’s ever been studied how Haskell has introduced and helped so many people find a love for programming.

Standing by a Poster

Standing by another poster

These were for these workshops

SOCML notification

  • Reaction: Me, jumping up and down. I was also in the middle of a final project that was using a hybrid of multiparty computation and homomorphic encryption, so I was pretty stoked! (Edit: I ended up getting an A+ in my Secure Computation class! :) happy dance )

The workshops were enjoyed by a lot of people!

  • We heard news that the workshops gave them energy to continue to do their work. That makes me very thankful. I won’t unroll the thread, but you’ll see many similar comments under that about how they really felt supported and energized by the workshops (we even got a shout out in Town Hall by S. Bengio). Part of it is seeing people just like you who are doing really great research, and having some of these great conversations with your peers. It was a place where we felt supported.


  • This is a small fraction; I don’t want to point out specific people as I respect people’s privacy, but some people mentioned or tagged me and I ended up getting flooded with LinkedIn requests. So I’m making my way through that. I also went to a few recruitment sessions, and missed one by an hour (sorry!).
  • However, I had a great time, met incredible people, had great conversations, learned a lot and got really involved in the community this year, all from the comfort of my space. So that was pretty cool. The workshops were at different timezones, though, I definitely took power naps in between, and some things messed up my sleep schedule.
  • I also baked a lot. Baking is super useful during conferences because if you set an alarm, you can put things in the oven and go get it when it’s ready. Also, a lot of tea. I drank a LOT of tea this week! The WiML workshop meant I had to be up from 4:40am all the way until 9pm. So it was a long day but I took a nap in between. Forgetting to eat was also a thing. But dancing in Gather Town was definitely also a thing (press z).

So how does it feel

  • It feels surreal. I can’t believe it’s over, but I’m happy to have connected with so many people, and had such a fun (but exhausting) week. The community isn’t perfect, but these are my people. My friend came to see me during my poster session, and she said she was so impressed by all I’ve accomplished this year. If you ever wanted to see two people tear up in a virtual Gather Room by a poster, that was it! I am so thankful for her friendship and for her support. I’m so thankful for everything. These people make everything worthwhile.

C’est la vie

Written on December 13, 2020