Jesse Mu (Photo by Yiting Chen)
Hometown: Omaha, Nebraska
Major: Computer science, minor in mathematics
Notable Activities/Achievements: 2017 Winston Churchill Scholarship; 2016 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship; Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society; co-president, BC Computer Science Society; web developer, Haley House; research assistant in labs at Stanford University, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and MIT; Boston College Symphony Orchestra; Chamber Music Society.
Post-Graduation Plans: Master’s degree in advanced computer science, Cambridge University; doctorate in computer science, Stanford University; work as research scientist in computer industry.
This Gabelli Presidential Scholar Program member has found himself on the cutting edge of one of the more exciting technologies to emerge in recent years: Natural Language Processing (NLP), which is used for devices such as Siri and Amazon Echo. For Mu, NLP represents the intersection of three keen interests – psychology, computer science and language – that he’s been able to explore by working with, among others, Assistant Professor of Psychology Joshua Hartshorne. But even as he touts technology’s benefits, Mu is mindful of its limitations in improving the human condition, especially for people who do not have access to essential resources and services – a concern manifested by his role in producing a documentary with his fellow GPSP students about mental health care issues in Boston.
What first comes to mind when you think about your four years at Boston College?
The Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program has been a big part of my life at BC. Student-wise, there were some incredible relationships not only within each class, but across them. The older students were very forthcoming and wanted to see us succeed, so they challenged us to be better. Faculty relationships also were important: [Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program Director] James Keenan, S.J., encourages us to be bold in how we proceed in college, and beyond it.
I also think about the many people I’ve met here, friends and classmates. A lot of them are different than me, in personality and other ways, but we unite around topics of interest in politics or religion or other subjects. For me, BC’s been an environment where we break down differences – not only in the classroom, but just sitting around a table having coffee.
Initially, your focus was on studying psychology?
I’ve always been interested in how our minds work, and the biases and other factors that shape our thinking. I took psychology in high school, and I was struck by how little we know about ourselves, even with all the research that’s been done. More specifically, I was interested in language. I’d had some struggles with language acquisition (I learned Mandarin Chinese and Spanish), and to me there was something fascinating in how we process language – why it seems easier to learn one and not another.
But the more I encountered computer science, the more I was drawn to it. It’s a field that has an instant and tangible effect on people. And I genuinely enjoy the rigor of thought that comes with the work; it’s like a continuous brainteaser.
With NLP, though, you’re looking at more than matters of technology involved. Most work in NLP has been done in English only; there are many languages for which we don’t have as many linguistic resources. So one important consideration for NLP going forward is how to bring a global perspective to the work – how do you make language technologies accessible and useful for more people?
"If you want to live up to Jesuit ideals, of being men and women for others, do you have to work in a service type of position – or is there another way? After being here for four years, I have come to believe that caring for the common good is something you can incorporate into any career, no matter how technical or specialized."
Even as computers have taken on a greater role in our daily lives, there are concerns about technology’s impact on personal and social behavior. What’s your take on this?
Although I’m a fairly strong technocrat, I believe that technology does not replace essential communication among people. It is a platform by which we can achieve and accomplish more, yet it also can be a barrier to good relationships. So even though I work with computers, I’ve made sure to keep some distance from technology.
Still, this is an exciting time to be in computer science, because technology – such as that which allows you to speak to your computer – will continue to provide more ways to potentially improve our lives. If, that is, we continue to think and talk about the ethical component.
You’ve won two coveted academic awards, the Churchill and Goldwater. What did those achievements mean to you?
Winning the Goldwater was important because it verified the path I’d chosen, of pursuing research as a career. I realized, “OK, I’m good at this, and I can continue.” It definitely increased my confidence.
With the Churchill, through which I’ll study at Cambridge University, I can now apply what I’ve learned from my work with Joshua Hartshorne and others. Being in Cambridge will be culturally significant for me: I’ve always tried to emphasize international experience in my education – I was fortunate to spend time in Madrid doing research on Parkinson’s disease and in China studying data science.
Looking back, how did BC make a difference in your life?
Again, it’s the people I’ve met, in various circumstances and settings, and the impact they’ve had on me. The professors here have gone above and beyond in terms of the guidance they’ve given me to set and achieve goals.
BC also has helped me answer a question. If you want to live up to Jesuit ideals, of being men and women for others, do you have to work in a service type of position – or is there another way? After being here for four years, I have come to believe that caring for the common good is something you can incorporate into any career, no matter how technical or specialized.
-Sean Smith / University Communications