Inside ISI’s Ph.D. Visit Day 2024

by Stephanie Lee

ISI’s Yolanda Gil welcomes students to Ph.D. Visit Day with an overview of the institute’s notable history.

On the afternoon of March 1st in Marina del Rey, the 10th floor of USC’s Information Sciences Institute buzzed with anticipation. Over 50 prospective students had traveled from all over the country to attend Ph.D. Visit Day—a chance to learn about research, connect with advisors and feel out a potential future at ISI. 

One student, named Eleanor Lin, a senior at Columbia University, came to learn more about ISI’s work on novel linguistic technologies. Another, named Kaitlin Zareno, a fifth-year at Boston University, wanted to see whether ISI could provide an academic path back to her native Los Angeles home. Tiankai Yang, a USC master’s student, was already set to enter the USC Viterbi School of Engineering doctoral program this fall. When asked why he decided to visit ISI, Yang cracked a smile. “I heard there was an amazing view,” he said. 

In a corner tower overlooking the marina, Yolanda Gil, a Senior Director at ISI, kicked off Ph.D. Visit day with a concise yet captivating history of the institute. ISI faculty members Jonathan May and John Heidemann followed suit, further piquing interests with a whirlwind overview of ISI’s current projects in AI and networks and cybersecurity. This list ranged from monitoring conflict through geographic internet outages to analyzing natural language interactions in the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. At the end of the overview, May looked out towards the students. “Hopefully I’ve managed to convince you, at a very fast speed, of the breadth of work that goes on here,” he said. 

Ph.D. Visit Day continued with a tour through some of ISI’s on-site laboratories. On the second floor, Joe Barnes, a Research Systems Administrator at ISI, guided students through the DETERLab, a testbed facility for conducting cybersecurity research, where noisy machinery scaled from floor to ceiling. In the next building over, Federico Spedalieri, an ISI Research Lead and Research Assistant Professor at USC, welcomed students into the Quantum Computing Center, home to The Advantage™—a quantum computer contained in a 10-foot-tall, nitrogen-cooled shell. One prospective student, named John Hill, an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, spared no time in asking Spedalieri a string of qubit questions. This was the “coolest part of the day,” he said.

Later that afternoon on the eleventh floor, poster presentations from current ISI Ph.D. students gave the visitors yet another insightful vantage point into ISI’s graduate program. At one easel, ISIers Charles Bickham and David Chu engaged students about online radicalization, discussing memes and machine learning techniques animatedly. At another, Katy Felkner talked through her work on anti-LGBTQ+ bias in large language models. She hoped to leave the impression that ISI’s research goals go beyond technical capacity to driving social good.

Felkner, now a fourth year doctoral student at ISI, had also attended the Ph.D. Visit Day in 2020. Compared to the other two programs she visited, that day stood out to her. ISI’s students seemed genuinely happy and supportive of one another, she recalled. By engaging with prospective labmates this year, Felkner sought to bring that same sense of spirit. “I wanted to pay my experience forward,” she said. 

As the sun began to set over the Marina, students trickled down to the fifth floor for the final reception. While waiting in line for tacos, they chatted about their research specialties and takeaways from the day. One student remarked that ISI seemed to be well-funded and doing interesting work. Ian Magnusson, a post-baccalaureate researcher from Seattle, agreed. Then, Magnusson added another reason to potentially join ISI: “there’s blue skies and everyone’s excited.” 

Published on March 19th, 2024

Last updated on March 21st, 2024

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