Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Dr. Donn

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On the day before leaving for Vietnam, I attended my friend Donn’s thesis defence. Donn recently completed 4.5 years of work toward a doctorate in computer science, studying the “withertos and whyfores” of providing accurate results to online image searches, for example when you search for sailboat images on Google. Here is Donn before the presentation, probably nervous, with his thesis topic shown on the screen: “Latent variable modelling of user interaction in image retrieval.”

Donn said he was nervous at the beginning, but it was only noticeable in his hand movements. His speech was clear and his delivery fluid throughout. After 15 minutes or so he really relaxed and exuded expert-ness throughout the rest of the presentation. In fact, I have never heard Donn speak publicly like that – very impressive.

His girlfriend Jen and I sat together, and laughed quietly as the content of the presentation rapidly surpassed us. For me, the point I went underwater was when Donn explained how his parameters were “orthagonal” and helped to shape his “latent space.” Without the normal tone of Donn’s delivery, the normal setting at the university and the normal-looking audience, that vocabulary would have started me thinking that the scene was about to twist and turn into a Twilight Zone episode.

Donn attracted quite a crowd. I think it was his new blue sweater that drew people through the door.

Donn had 45 minutes or so to present, then answered questions from the jury for a little under an hour. I don’t understand much of the topic, but I gathered that only one jury member, a guy from the Netherlands with whom Donn had worked on a data set, had any serious questions for him. In short, he seemed to question a couple of the assumptions Donn had made, but only so far as asking Donn to justify them. Here is a photo of Donn’s exchange with the Dutchman (black shirt, glasses).

The other jury members did not seem to have any confrontational questions. When their turns came, their questions seemed to be more about their participation than about testing Donn: “Wouldn’t it be useful to have more data or more parameters by which to analyse them?” In most cases, Donn’s answers to these questions were brief: either “no, impossible” or “yes, I agree that would be cool.” The third of these photos shows an array of images on the screen – an illustration of the image search results from Donn’ modelling.

Once finished with their questions, the jury left for 15 minutes to deliberate. We chatted with Donn, who seemed happy and confident.

The jury returned. The president addressed the audience and began with a joke, which put Donn at ease. The jury requested that, next time, Donn tuck in his shirt.

He then continued with a big “BUT,” with visible effects on Donn’s expression.

In the end they asked him a write a little more in his conclusion – nothing major. They awarded him a très bien, the highest grade, and admitted him as a doctor of computer science. Congratulations Dr. Donn!

It will now be very intellectually intimidating to visit Donn and Jen, who are both doctors.

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Written by Kris Terauds

February 15, 2011 at 12:19

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