Alumni Spotlight: Huan Sun

CS alum Huan Sun wins the 2016 SIGKDD Dissertation Runner-Up Award

SIGKDD is the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) Special Interest Group (SIG) on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining. It became an official ACM SIG in 1998. 

We proudly congratulate Huan Sun and her UCSB thesis advisor, Professor Xifeng Yan on achieving this recognition. Huan is now an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the Ohio State University. While at UCSB, Huan attended MIT's Rising Stars in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science workshop (2015). She also received the UC Regents’ Special Fellowship (2010, 2014), and the CS Ph.D. Progress Award (2014).

After receiving her Ph.D. in Computer Science from UC Santa Barbara (2015), Huan was a visiting scientist at the University of Washington in the first half of 2016. She also earned a B.S. in Electronic Engineering and Information Science from the University of Science and Technology of China (2010). Huan's research interests lie in data mining and machine learning, with emphasis on question answering, text mining and understanding, network analysis, and human behavior understanding.

In this Q&A, Huan shares her thoughts on data mining, pursuing a Ph.D., and her time at UC Santa Barbara. 

Q: HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR FIELD OR INDUSTRY CHANGING IN THE FUTURE?
A: My research area lies in mining and searching knowledge from all kinds of data. The past few years have witnessed the blossom of this area. I think this field will continue to grow with more and more data (especially unstructured data) emerging, and it is becoming more and more interdisciplinary and closely related to other fields like AI, database, and HCI. In my humble opinion, researchers who have a broad vision and combine insights from these research areas can be greatly impactful. 

Q: WHAT HAS BEEN – OR DO YOU HOPE WILL BE – THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR CAREER?
A. I hope the highlight of my career will be a few effective data mining frameworks that can answer difficult questions on whatever users really care about, whether its their health condition or work-related problems. 

Q: HOW DID YOUR EXPERIENCE AT UCSB HELP YOU FIND YOUR FIRST POSITION AFTER GRADUATION?
A: In numerous ways, UCSB has empowered me to get my first position. I was so fortunate to be guided by my advisor, Prof. Xifeng Yan, who led me to the wonderful field of Data Mining. Along the way, I had Prof. Ambuj Singh and Prof. Linda Petzold in my committee to give me wonderful suggestions. I was also lucky to get terrific comments on the first job from a lot of professors outside my thesis committee such as Prof. Amr Abbadi and Prof. Ben Zhao. I owe many thanks to all of them.  A lot of activities in CS@UCSB, such as the weekly social hour, the women-in-CS events, and the graduate workshop, have inspired and encouraged me to explore life and research. Last but not least, my awesome friends in UCSB gave their strongest support during my job search. The incredibly beautiful Santa Barbara area also allowed me to get away from work and enjoy the abundance and diversity of nature, whenever I wanted to. 

Q: OF ALL THE THINGS YOU LEARNED WHILE IN THE CS DEPARTMENT AT UCSB, WHAT HAS HAD THE GREATEST IMPACT ON YOUR CAREER?
A: I think the most beneficial thing I learned is actually nothing technical but the iimportance of a positive attitude by observing my advisor and collaborators. That is, being willing to criticize my own work from an objective point of view and reflect on myself in various aspects, which allows me to further improve and grow quickly. 

Q: IF YOU COULD REPEAT YOUR EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCE, WOULD YOU DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY?
A: I felt worried and anxious during the first two years when I had no publications. If I could repeat the Ph.D. experience, I would be more patient, focus more on the research itself, and enjoy the pleasure of learning new things. I would be more brave and open-minded to explore different kinds of research topics, even though they are not quite relevant to the work at hand.

Q: IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT SETS UCSB APART FROM OTHER UNIVERSITIES?
A: To me, the uniqueness of UCSB lies in its combination of top-notch academic environments and amazing natural environments. Students can conduct exciting research with renowned professors and scholars, and at the same time enjoy the matchless ocean views and lovely weather. 

Q: THE BEST PROJECT YOU WORKED ON WHILE AT UCSB?
A: I was lucky to work on many wonderful projects while at UCSB, owing to my advisor and collaborators. It is actually hard to choose the best one. If I have to, I would pick the one on human behavior analysis in collaborative problem solving, published in KDD 2014. In that project, I began to learn how to avoid blindly defending myself, how to criticize my own work for further improvement, and how to always have the patience and the will to make things better.  

Q: WHAT HAS HELPED YOU MOST IN BEING SUCCESSFUL?
A: I think working with and learning from my advisor has greatly helped me to arrive at the current position.  Particularly, I learned and practiced several things, especially during the last two years of my Ph.D., which helped me grow a lot: (1) Be proactive. The more I am, the luckier I get. (2) Be eager to learn. There are always wonderful people surrounding me and I really learned a lot from each of them. (3) Make a plan and be disciplined. The plan might be not only for meeting a paper deadline, but also for something bigger like realizing a career goal. 

Q: YOUR FAVORITE UCSB COURSE IN THE CS DEPARTMENT?
A: Again, it is really challenging to pick my favorite here. I would say the first course on Combinatorial Algorithms taught by Prof. Subhash Suri left a great impression on me. I like the way how he covered important topics in only three months. Although I did not do quite well on the exams, the knowledge and analytical thinking I learned there greatly help my research later on. ;)

Q: AS A UCSB ALUMNUS, WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF THE CS DEPARTMENT AND OTHER ALUMNI?
A: I think CS@UCSB is highly respected by a lot of research communities. I expect it to continue to grow and expand. Many senior alumni are my role models that I will always look up to and learn from. I believe future graduates from this wonderful department will become more and more successful, given the accumulated reputation of faculty, research, and education. 

Thank you, Huan!