Steven Feng earns honourable mention for the 2020 Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Steven Feng has received one of two honourable mentions for the 2020 Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research. Established 2012, the award is given annually to recognize research excellence of an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Mathematics.

photo of Steven FengSteven recently completed a Business Administration and Mathematics Double Degree, a five-year program that brings together the University of Waterloo’s strength in mathematics with Wilfrid Laurier University’s expertise in business administration. Graduates of the program earn two degrees — a Bachelor of Mathematics from Waterloo and a Bachelor of Business Administration from Laurier.

“Your two research supervisors, Professor Poupart and Professor Hoey, nominated you with their strongest support, noting that you are the most outstanding undergraduate research assistant they have ever worked with in terms of research skill, creativity and output, teamwork ability, motivation and work ethic,” wrote Professor Anita T. Layton, Associate Dean of Research and International in the Faculty of Mathematics, in her letter to Steven.

Steven’s research with Professor Poupart on robust machine translation made important contributions both in terms of ideas and implementation of a new probabilistic embedding technique that can model various types of noise in casual text from social media and speech recognizers. After obtaining initial results, Steven made several suggestions to improve performance and to better understand which datasets the approach is most suitable for.

“Mr. Feng is fully engaged and contributes research ideas with a maturity and experience that is closer to that of a senior PhD student,” wrote Professor Poupart in his nomination letter. “He also has outstanding communication skills, both oral and written. He is engaging, clear and enthusiastic.”

Steven also conducted research with Professor Jesse Hoey to improve conversational assistants, which resulted in two publications. In the first project, he helped develop a system called ALOHA — short for Artificial Learning of Human Attributes — that can mimic human personality in dialogue. This work was published in a paper titled ALOHA: Artificial Learning of Human Attributes for Dialogue Agents and was presented orally at AAAI-20, a top international conference on artificial intelligence.

In the second project, Steven developed a task called semantic text exchange and a complementary system called SMERTI that uses natural language and emotional cues to change text depending on the situation in which it is used. Combined with ALOHA, this work will allow chatbots and conversational assistants to connect better to people with mental illness and cognitive disabilities. This research resulted in a first-author paper titled Keep Calm and Switch On! Preserving Sentiment and Fluency in Semantic Text Exchange, which was presented at the 2019 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing.

These research projects with Professor Hoey also resulted in Steven receiving from the Computing Research Association an honorable mention, an award that recognizes undergraduate students from universities across North America who show outstanding research potential in an area of computing science.

Steven will be starting graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University in fall 2020 to further pursue his passion for machine learning and natural language processing research. His overall research goal is to work towards truly human-like conversational agents.


Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research

Cheriton School of Computer Science Professor Ming Li and his family established the Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research in 2012 in honour of his late wife, Jessie Wenhui Zou.

Jessie was born August 27, 1968 in Wuhan, China. She received her PhD in physics from Wuhan University when she was 26 years old. She loved the field of finance and continued to pursue her studies and graduated from the University of Waterloo’s statistical finance master’s program in 2000. Upon graduation, she worked at the Bank of Montreal, specializing in risk control management.

The Jessie W.H. Zou Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research is valued at $1,000 and is presented annually to an undergraduate student enrolled in his or her final year of any program within the Faculty of Mathematics.

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