Amir Abdi

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Machine Learnt Treatment
Ardestan & Zavareh
NSER Gilles Brassard
Killam Graduate Teaching Assistantship Award
Teaching-as-research (TAR) Award
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I primarily pursued Ph.D. studies to find more opportunities to help spread knowledge in both research and teaching capacities. I have been fond of teaching for as long as I can remember. At the time, I also enjoyed the flexibility of academic research where increasing the quarterly revenue is not identified among the research objectives. Regardless, while I now realize that the freedom of research in academia is a double-edged sword and can decay its quality in the long run, my love for teaching remains intact.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I owe the decision of joining UBC to my supervisors, Prof. Abolmaesumi and Fels, who collectively drew an intriguing image of the opportunities in their interdisciplinary research settings where I could bridge my dentistry and computer engineering backgrounds. Besides, it is also hard to find a city as beautiful as Vancouver, and people as peaceful and friendly as Canadians. Indeed, my best alternative (CMU, Pittsburgh) would not have come close to this little piece of heaven on earth we call Vancouver. With the professional and personal growth in mind, and considering the hostilities of Canada's southern neighbour towards certain ethnicities, UBC was the abosolute winner with a considerable margin.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

Flexibility in research. Luckily, I was supported by my supervisors with the freedom to explore diverse ideas and research avenues. It was a lot like the famous 80-20 policy of Google, and, in turn, I got to spend a substantial amount of time, accumulated over the years, on ideas and interests of my own. This made the journey far more exciting, helped me expand the breadth of my research, and, at the same time, remain engaged and interested in my progress. Lastly, being supported to do internships in the tech industry was also quite attractive.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

Mainly the beauty of the UBC campus! I believe we, the Vancouverites, are quite fortunate to be enjoying such beautiful scenery all year long. I admire the nice, albeit rainy, weather of the west coast, its four seasons, and the diverse possibilities of summer and winter outdoor activities.

It is hard to find a city as beautiful as Vancouver, and people as peaceful and friendly as Canadians.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

There are many opportunities to learn and more opportunities to shine in graduate studies. Another distinctive feature of graduate life is the numerous opportunities for self-branding and self-promotion through networking events, public presentations, and international conferences.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

I currently face the dilemma of following my long-set dreams in academia or switching to industry. It is a three-fold multivariate optimization problem with no easy answers. From the perspective of impact, in my field of research (machine learning), there are quite a few reputable research labs in the industry that are often deemed leaders in their respective fields. On the other hand, academia comes with many perks, one of which is to explore ideas that are too unorthodox to grab the attention of a costly industrial lab. At the same time, I enjoy running my own show. In academia, the outcome of academic research is often (not always) papers. It is as if the means to a goal has slowly taken over and replaced the goal! I'm not pleased when researchers implicitly or explicitly plan on the number, title, and timeline of papers to be authored for a given project. In contrast, I find the reverse to be right workflow, i.e., one should be exploring a research space for quite some time and if, and only if, s/he achieved something worthy of notifying her peers, s/he shall consider publishing the work. Unfortunately, this seems not to be the mainstream mindset in academia.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

The Ph.D. years at UBC prepared me both in the technical and research capacities, as well as the collaborative work, team building, and leadership. The learning opportunities in UBC were beyond my expectations in all fronts, including teaching opportunities, entrepreneurship launchpads, numerous student clubs, and self-development workshops.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

I have learned to be persistent in my work and multi-task to meet deadlines; these helped me enjoy my Ph.D. and consider it as one of the most fruitful and happiest four years of my life. However, the most relevant attribute would be the ability to deal with inevitable failures. I often wish I could share my "resume of failures and rejections" to motivate friends to give it another try.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

Hanging out with friends, going for a walk with my darling, board-games, reading, video games, ski if the snow is good, coding for fun, and sometimes singing with a not-so-terrible-yet-not-pleasant voice.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Smile! My granddad, may he rest in peace, used to say, "When a minute goes by without you smiling, that is a minute lost." My professional advice, for those engaged in academia or industry, is first to find and then to follow your passion. If you don't love what you do, look again! Don't let inertia push you away from what makes you unique. If you enjoy something, you will eventually be good at it. "Everybody's got to learn; nobody's born knowing." Lastly, "Persistence is the key" and be aware that persistence of action comes from the persistence of vision. So, if you are about to devote a few years of your life to graduate studies, verify that it is for the right reasons.


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